Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, famously said change is an inescapable force in the universe. So, too, is it a certainty in shaping human lives. One of Heraclitus’ best-known observations is that no person ever steps twice into the same river.
For a hockey player, the adage holds true for those venturing onto the ice. Just ask Bo Reichenbach. The 27-year-old Montana native with rippling weightlifter’s arms covered by warrior tattoos will never forget the jolts of euphoria he felt as a toddler when his blades touched the freshly-surfaced ice at Centennial Ice Arena in Billings. Joyousness radiated up his legs, all the way into his brain and back down again. It was a sensation he would come to equate with freedom.
Reichenbach’s memory is no less clear recalling the moment he stepped on an improvised explosive device while serving his country as an elite Navy SEAL in Afghanistan. Within an instant, he encountered the profundity of change articulated by Heraclitus centuries earlier.
Ironically, it was trauma, which took place on a summer night in 2012 that opened the door for this lifelong goaltender to represent the United States in uniform again—this time as one of the newest members of its National Sled Hockey Team.
“I think hockey is what helped prepare Bo to cope with what happened to him, and I credit it with helping to save my son’s life, to help him heal,” says Reichenbach’s father, Don, who was also his youth coach.
Bo’s introduction to the ice started as it does for many kids. His parents wanted to give him a healthy outlet for his high energy. At age 4, Don, a homebuilder, and Bo’s mother, Crystal, enrolled their boy in a learn-to-skate program.
“A doctor said I was a little OCD and getting on the ice would do me good,” Bo recalls, noting how hockey became his refuge. “It gave me focus. I started playing all of the positions and then my dad put me in the net. I guess you could say the rest is history.”
Although Don Reichenbach played defense, both Bo and younger son, Ty, excelled at netminding, becoming known for their agility and athleticism. They practiced in the shop housing their father’s construction company and spent hours peppering each other with shots.
Ty today is a junior goalie at Norwich University, the D-III military college in Vermont.
Bo’s travel teams did very well in Montana and to court better competition they crossed the northern border into Canada, beating vaunted opponents who underestimated their grit. During his late teenage years, however, Bo got into trouble, spending time briefly at a military-style reform school. When he came out, having matured, two momentous things happened: he became a father and wanting to demonstrate his patriotism and commitment to getting his life on track, he enlisted in the Navy.
In March 2008, he and his wife, Lacy, welcomed the birth of their son, Landon, and less than a month later Reichenbach left for boot camp. During his recruitment, he had expressed interest in SEAL training. Although most aspiring recruits wash out, Reichenbach persevered, overcoming years of ultra-rigorous physical challenges and tests of mental stamina—part of a multi-step process—to prove he possessed the right stuff.
“Some guys are definitely tough enough but their body physiology might prevent them from reaching the next level,” Reichenbach says, noting that some of the water trials, aimed at revealing a person’s tolerance for hypothermia and vulnerability to drowning, are formidable.
Reichenbach hung tough, defying those who doubted him. In May 2010, he was assigned to SEAL Team Two. Eventually, his unit was given a seven-month deployment to a remote outpost in Afghanistan.
On July 17, 2012, Reichenbach and a five-person sniper team were patrolling a village where previously there had been horrific firefights with the Taliban. All was unusually quiet as the afternoon wore on toward sunset.
Heading toward a safer place where they would spend the night, Reichenbach was walking third in line. A point man and interpreter in front of him apparently stepped on a 20-pound IED buried in a field but their body weights were too light to set it off.
Reichenbach wasn’t so fortunate. The explosion laid waste to his left leg and severely injured his other leg and left arm. Another SEAL was severely injured by shrapnel. Both were bleeding profusely and there was concern they might not make it.
“I remember where I was the moment I got the call. I was on the roof of a client’s house in Billings repairing hail damage,” Don Reichenbach recalls. “It was 10:30 in the morning. I could read that the incoming call was a SATphone so I thought it was Bo. We had just spoken a few days earlier. I answered, ‘Hey buddy, what’s going on?”
When Reichenbach heard the grave voice of Bo’s commanding officer Mike Hayes, he froze in near paralysis.
“I knew right away something was wrong and immediately I flashed to the possibility that maybe I was getting the call every parent with a child in the military dreads most.”
“Bo has been seriously injured, but he is alive,” Hayes said. “He was blown up on a mission. He lost one of his legs and we are trying to save the other but our greatest priority now is keeping him alive.”
After informing Reichenbach that Bo had been medevaced to a hospital, Hayes added something that made both men laugh and cry at the same time.
“I have to tell you that, amazingly, Bo was pretty calm and collected as he was being prepared for the airlift,” Hayes said. “Ever practical, he grabbed my arm and said, ‘You need to call my Dad. Write down his number and remember that to reach Montana you have to use the 406 area code. Tell my Dad what happened. He’ll know what to do.’”
Five days later, Don and Crystal were waiting in Bethesda, Md., when Bo arrived back on U.S. soil. They accompanied him to Walter Reed Medical Center where he began his long and painful journey through rehabilitation that would involve nearly 30 surgeries. Along the way, Bo lost his other leg above the knee leaving him a double amputee.
“I remember sitting in bed and watching an old hockey game on video thinking, “I miss my legs but one of the worst parts is I’ll never be able to play hockey again. I’ll never be able to teach the game to my son as my Dad did for me,’” Bo recalls.
“It was tough for me to accept because hockey was something I always figured would be in my life and being a SEAL you believe you are invincible. To be honest with you, all my years of playing hockey I never knew that sled hockey existed.”
That soon changed when Bo’s therapist learned he had been a goalie, a pretty decent one at that. Not long after, National Sled Hockey member Josh Misiewicz, also a double amputee wounded by a landmine in Afghanistan, invited Reichenbach to give it a try. Initially, Reichenbach hesitated.
“Josh said, ‘Come on, what have you got to lose?’ He was right. I went out once and fell instantly in love with it,” he says. “It was like I was rediscovering hockey all over again.”
On fresh ice, Reichenbach also received a surprise visit from three members of the Washington Capitals who shot pucks at him.
As soon as Bo started going to the arena again, his father could see a lifting of spirits in his son.
“The smell of the ice, the sounds, the feel of having that cool breeze blowing through your helmet. It came rushing back for Bo,” he says.
“I had been proud of him beyond words when he battled as goaltender in youth hockey and when he became a SEAL. Now he had a new challenge to rise up toward.”
Bo received an invitation to tryout for the U.S. development team and he earned a spot. It was the year before the National Team competed at the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, taking home a gold medal.
“His determination is what stuck out right away,” says Dan Brennan, general manager of the U.S. National Sled Hockey program. “When I first saw Bo play three years ago, he had recently been injured but he had fire in the eye. He fought every puck and never gave up. And, as it turns out, he’s also a committed student of the game.”
As Brennan says—and Reichenbach agrees—he had a great role model in starting National Team goalie Steve Cash, viewed by many as the top creaseman in the world.
“Steve is ultra-competitive, and when Bo wasn’t practicing with us on the development team he was watching Steve, intently trying to absorb as much as possible,” Brennan says.
In Reichenbach’s second season with the development squad, he was named assistant captain and he played for the USA Warriors. Still, his goal was making the National Team.
Returning home to Billings, Reichenbach spent hours in his old dryland training ground where years before he and brother Ty had perfected their understanding of shooting angles.
Earlier this year, the training paid off. Reichenbach was named the number two goalie for the National Team.
What stands out about Bo is that he’s tenacious and a high-character person, notes Mike MacMillan, head coach of the Development Team and national coach in chief of USA Hockey who encouraged Reichenbach to believe he could earn a place among the best in the world.
“Everyone in the locker room knows the sacrifice he had given to his country and fellow service members,” MacMillan says. “He has a mystique because they knew he’d do the same
U.S. Sled Team Members With Military Ties
Ralph De Quebec
for them. Not to mention, get him going and he’s got a great sense of humor, which puts everyone at ease.”
Between the Development and National Team, there are, in addition to Reichenbach and Misiewicz, three other military veterans who suffered life-altering injuries. Reichenbach says they speak a non-verbal language.
“Just in the SEALs alone, there was actually a sizeable number of us who had grown up playing competitive youth hockey and many of them still play pick-up,” he says. “In fact, recruiters say hockey players often make ideal candidates. They have strong work ethics, they know how to dig down when theirs backs are against the wall and they understand the importance of team.”
There is a parallel to be drawn between stopping pucks and protecting the homeland.
“The reason our military players are such solid leaders is they get our message of total team effort a lot sooner than other players,” Brennan
says. “They wore U.S. flags on their shoulders on the front lines and they’ve moved it down to their chests in front of their hearts. They know what it means, when everything is on the line, to put on the uniform of your country and not let other guys down.”
Reichenbach never forgets his comrades. He’s profoundly grateful to them for rallying behind a campaign to have a custom home built for him in Billings that offers inspiring views of the northern Rocky Mountains.
His arms and hand are decorated with ornate tattoos, which Reichenbach says are the marks of time-honored brotherhood.
“Most of it involves a military thing, a means for never taking anything for granted,” he says, referring first to an ink drawing of a bonefrog (also known as a frogman) that reminds him every day of fallen comrades and is accompanied by the words “Long Live The Brotherhood.” Meanwhile, covering his right arm are Viking warriors, one carrying a sniper rifle. There are other ink pictographs on his chest.
“We have a sense of bond that doesn’t exist in many other places in the world,” he says. “If I need help they take leave and will do whatever they can to bring help. It is similar to what we do for each other in a game we need to win.”
As in special forces, he learned that every day on the ice is a new opportunity and none is ever the same. There are no guarantees. Reichenbach knows that, for now, he provides backup and he’s fine with it.
At the end of the day, what is Reichenbach’s goal besides maintaining a spot on the squad that will compete at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea? It’s surprisingly simple.
“I wouldn’t mind bringing my dad out of retirement and maybe us coaching my son’s team together,” he says. “Maybe I could be a second or third assistant behind the bench and work with young goalies on the ice during practice. Maybe I could have something to offer them.”
Don Reichenbach’s voice cracks when he hears Bo’s words.
“There are few things that would make me feel happier and prouder.”
Todd Wilkinson writes, lives and skates in Bozeman, Mont. He is author of the critically acclaimed book, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone.