While hockey players put their bodies on the line each time they take the ice, U.S. military personnel put their lives on the line every day in the hopes of protecting the American people.
The Pittsburgh Penguins made sure that a group of 13 local military veterans knew that the organization appreciated their sacrifice.
The Pens hosted the vets during their morning skate at CONSOL Energy Center prior to Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The skate was the first of a day-long program that the Pens, partnered with ATI, Dunkin’ Donuts and First Niagara Bank, are using to raise money for “Support Our Heroes.”
Matt Hannan, Gunnery Sgt. in the U.S. Marine Corps, served from 1995 until 2010 in the Marine’s intelligence community. He is a self-described “born and raised” Pens fan and said attending the morning skate was a “remarkable experience” he will never forget.
“It’s nice to see that as much as we appreciate the Pens, that they reciprocate that respect and admiration,” Hannan said.
The veterans watched from the stands and got an unexpected surprise near the end of the skate when the team gathered near the glass directly in front of the them and raised their sticks in salute.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” said Will Cole, Sgt. in the U.S. Marine Corps. “To be honest, there are few things that are more special than having the Pens salute you.”
Cole was deployed overseas twice, once to Iraq and once to East Africa, during his six-year military career. He and Hannan currently attend the University of Pittsburgh and make sure they watch Pens games “as frequently as possible.”
After the skate, the veterans were handed personalized jerseys by head coach Dan Bylsma, defensemen Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin, and forward Beau Bennett. Niskanen said it was the least the team could do for the people he considers to be the real heroes.
“I’m honored that they came. We owe a lot to those guys,” Niskanen said. “Hockey players show a lot of commitment and sacrifice, but it’s all pretty insignificant compared to what they’ve sacrificed and what they’re committed to. So, I can’t thank those guys enough.”
Joe Gibson, Lance Cpl. in the U.S. Marine Corps who plays goalie for the Pens sled hockey team, said he thought it was “really cool” to hear that Niskanen expressed those sentiments, but said those who were killed in combat are the true heroes.
“It’s hard to think of people saying that about me personally because I don’t look at myself that way,” Gibson said. “To me, in the military there are some people who didn’t make it back, so those are the stories that need to be told.”
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