22 Reasons to Play

Foundation Looks to Put The Brakes On Veteran Suicide

Following a 16-year career with the U.S. Army and Air Force, Robert Colliton moved from the Tampa, Fla., area to Boston. Like many veterans returning from service, he found transitioning from the military a difficult task. He credits hockey with not only the assist in returning to civilian life, but helping him through personal struggles as well. 

For Colliton, hockey was what centered him and gave him “a little bit of gravity.” His girlfriend at the time – now his wife – Andrea recognized that too and knew he needed to find a similar experience in their new community. He took it a step further.

Recognizing that the sense of community he got from hockey was his outlet, Colliton created the Skate for the 22 Foundation from the ice up. He would contact veterans he saw in the rink or go into locker rooms before and after games to see if any players knew veterans that might want to play hockey.

The first Skate for the 22 team, made up of about 18 veterans, skated their first game as a unit against the Boston Fire Department on Veterans’ Day weekend of 2015. 

It only snowballed from there. Colliton and three other individuals – two veterans and a civilian – formed an official foundation to better support those who wanted to play. In the four years since that first game, the Skate for the 22 has grown to roughly 400 veteran athletes playing for three teams – the New England Eagles in Massachusetts, the Granite State Cannons in New Hampshire and the Maine Mountaineers in Maine.

But it wasn’t long until the foundation evolved from pick-up hockey games between players with unique but similar experiences. 

“We looked at the core of what we wanted to do, and the number one thing was that we wanted to bring veterans back to a team-based environment where they felt like they belonged in a community that understood and supported them,” Colliton said.

“Beyond that, we wanted to raise awareness of the veteran suicide problem, not only in the veteran community but in the community at large as well. Twenty to 22 veterans [die by] suicide every single day; those numbers are astronomical.”

In Colliton’s military experience – which is unfortunately shared by many service members – he was surrounded by veteran suicide. He feels the lack of something for veterans to serve and give back to once they return to civilian life significantly contributes to them feeling isolated. His hope is that Skate for the 22 provides veterans the place to be a part of something bigger, while remaining active and being part of a community again. 

That all starts by making a program accessible to every veteran. Skate for the 22 doesn’t have any type of tiered teams; they come together for games and sort out the roster so everyone has the opportunity to play together. There’s an array of skill levels in the foundation, ranging from former Div. I college and minor professional players to veterans that have never picked up a stick.

The Veteran Let’s Play Hockey program helps fill in the gaps. Keri Allan, a former player at Northeastern University, runs the learn to skate sessions, which are structured for veterans who have never been on the ice. 

Chris Dyment – a local skater who played for Boston University, followed by seven years of pro hockey – helps veterans learn the game in the skill development program.

“They may not know it but by them playing hockey. By them getting on the ice, they’re raising awareness and they’re talking about the veteran suicide problem,” Colliton said. “They’re extremely passionate about what they belong to and they raise awareness without really knowing they are.”

Outside of the rink, the Skate for the 22 takes it a step further in their mission to lower these tragic numbers by providing suicide prevention training to veterans and their family to help them better identify when someone is in need and where to go for the help they need.

For those families that are affected by veteran suicide, the foundation also provides assistance, whether that be financial, physical or emotional support. 

As if what Skate for the 22 is doing isn’t impressive enough, everything offered is free to the veteran. The means gear for those just starting in hockey, ice time and skating and skill development lessons are at no cost to those participating. 

“There needs to be a way for veterans to help other veterans, because nothing’s really worked in the past,” Colliton said. “I get to see veterans who would’ve never met otherwise connect every day. 

“All of the guys from different teams love to chirp each other, but at the end of the day it’s always handshakes and hugs and they’ll go out for a beer after. They form friendships and bonds, and I really get to see that hockey is bringing people together.”

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