The Spirit Of St. Louis

Latest Warrior Hockey Team Hits The Ice With The Support Of Defending Stanley Cup Champs
Tom Worgo

U.S. Army Spec. Matt Mitchell was walking along a wall during combat mission in 2003 in Baghdad, when a rocket propelled grenade struck nearby.

The blast knocked him to the ground.

Mitchell sustained injuries to his upper vertebrae and neck. Later, the Army diagnosed him with a traumatic brain injury and a post-traumatic stress disorder.

He faced a rocky adjustment to civilian life after his discharge in 2004, including nine years of addiction to alcohol and a dependency on opioids.

"You feel like you didn't fit in anywhere," Mitchell says. "You feel like no one really understands. You can't talk to anybody about it. I went through that for quite a while."

Hockey turned Mitchell's life around once he joined the Suburban Developmental Adult League in Lansing, Mich. The 100-player league included about 20 veterans, and Mitchell quickly leaned on them for advice on and off the ice.

"Hockey absolutely saved my life," Mitchell says. "That whole thing of playing hockey and talking to other veterans is what picked me up." 

In April, the 38-year-old Mitchell joined the newly-formed St. Louis Blues Warrior Hockey Team, which is for injured and disabled U.S military veterans.

It's hard to match his dedication. He drives three and half hours round trip from his central Missouri home to practice for the team, which starts its first season in mid-September.

            His dedication and enthusiasm are shared by 37-year-old Nathan Laupp, the Warriors' general manager and goalie. Laupp has worked nonstop building a team sponsored by the St. Louis Blues. Laupp, a former U.S. Marine corporal, served two tours in Iraq where he sustained back injuries and tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ears often caused by loud percussive noises.

"When Nathan came to us, you could see the passion he had," says Randy Girsch, the vice president of community development and event management for the Blues. "It was second to none. When you have someone that is willing to put in the work the way he has, it's pretty tough to say no to someone like that."  

The result of Laupp's endless hours of devotion is a big reason why the Warriors have gotten enough players to create three teams veterans, many of whom suffer from PTSD or a traumatic brain injury. When Laupp started out, he says he would have been satisfied with just one team.

With 35 teams nationwide, Warrior Hockey is one of USA Hockey's fastest growing disabled hockey disciplines. And St. Louis is by far the fastest growing warrior team.

"It's only been a couple of months and 50 players are already registered on the team. St. Louis is a hotbed for hockey and he [Laupp] just started it by himself," says Mike Vaccaro, a driving force behind USA Hockey's efforts.

Laupp is immensely grateful with the partnership with the local NHL team. The Blues will allow the Warriors to use their practice facility, Centene Community Ice Center in Maryland Heights, Mo., once a week.

The Warriors' jersey will be almost identical to the one St. Louis wears and also includes the Blues' note (logo).

"Many of us grew up watching Brent Hall and Brendan Shanahan," Laupp says. "We just dreamed of wearing the blue logo on our chest. It's not the NHL, but it's as close we're going to get."

Girsch says it's a huge honor for the Blues to give back to those he describes as, "the most selfless people in the world who go and put their lives on the line for the rest of us."

            The Blues plan to do even more in the future. They will market the team, support them financially and provide them with fundraising opportunities during St. Louis' "Military Salute Night." The Warriors have already raised $13,000 through fundraisers and donations as part of their roughly $50,000 annual budget.

            "A key contribution will be getting the word out," Girsch says. "During the game, we can tell their stories about the work they are doing."

            When Laupp started the process of building a team, he wanted to do it right. He talked extensively with three teams that he considered among the most successful: Minnesota, Kansas City and Philadelphia.

He learned about having a code of conduct for the players, but also playing the sport gives the them a big dose of confidence in life.

"This is bigger than hockey," Laupp says. "The focus is on the players and veterans. It's giving them an outlet and something to be proud of again."

The most important things the players get from the game are camaraderie, and above all, therapy - from talking with each other.

"They can share some of the problems they are having," Vaccaro says. "They can get the help they need through hockey and it helps them get through another day or another week."

Mitchell, the team's veteran outreach coordinator, has been talking to some of his teammates, and he use his personal and professional experience as a full-time employee at the department of veteran affairs, assisting veterans who struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues.

His connections are invaluable, but even more important he knows exactly what his teammates are going through.

"When I came back from Iraq in 2006, they sent me to a psychiatrist at the VA and it was a young female that had never been in the military," Vaccaro says. "I never felt comfortable talking to her because she hadn't experienced it.

"When I got involved with the hockey program, I started venting and talking to the other guys in the military. They directed me to some other people in the military they had talked to. That's how we helped each other out."


Tom Worgo is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md. 




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