How a hockey club is taking on the suicide rate among military veterans

The New England Eagles Veterans Hockey Club skates to raise awareness of the suicide rate. Just as important, the team provides camaraderie and support for its players, who are veterans and current service members.

Courtesy of Patrick Daly
Jonathan Demers (with puck), an Army guardsman, joined the New England Eagles Veterans Hockey Club two years ago.

On a Saturday evening in the Boston suburb of Bedford, Mass., a small crowd is gathered to watch the New England Eagles Veterans Hockey Club take on the MA Hockey League Saints.

Both teams are mixed-level, made up of adult players who come together to compete and have fun on the ice. But for the Eagles, there’s a larger goal. Dressed head to toe in red, white, and blue, these military veterans and current service members skate to raise awareness of the suicide rate among veterans.

In recent years, this rate was about 22 deaths per day, according to estimates by the US Department of Veteran Affairs. It’s a number that many – including Bobby Colliton, an Army and Air Force veteran from Spokane, Wash. – find unacceptable.

After his own experiences transitioning back to civilian life in 2015, Mr. Colliton understands the struggles of veterans as they leave the military today. “I was isolated,” he says. But hockey, he adds, was “the only thing I had that made life good.”

Colliton started playing the sport with a recreational team in Florida shortly after leaving the military. It wasn’t long before he decided to take his love of hockey a step further: In 2015, he founded the Skate for the 22 Foundation to draw attention to the suicide rate and provide a space for veterans to come together and support each other. Among the foundation’s initiatives is the coed hockey team, the Eagles.

“I wanted to give a place for these guys never to feel alone again,” says Colliton, who himself has lost four friends to suicide.

The Eagles team, which was founded in November 2015, started with 18 veterans who played their first game against the Boston Fire Hockey Club. Since then, the foundation and the team have grown to more than 210 members. In fact, demand has been so great throughout New England that this past October a second team was formed – the Granite State Cannons – to serve the New Hampshire veteran community.

“Our growth rate is a testament, I think, to what we’re doing on the ice,” Colliton says. He considers hockey the best sport in the world because of its team mentality and the work ethic it demands from players.

While many come to the Eagles already knowing how to skate and play hockey, the team is open to any current or former service member, even if he or she has never been on the ice. New players can take part in learn-to-skate and learn-to-play skills clinics.

The Eagles have a regular season each year for practices and games, plus skills clinics for players of all levels and family skate events to help connect with the community. The most valuable part of it all, players say, is the camaraderie.

‘People get it’

“Within the military, especially active duty ... there’s definitely a mentality of brotherhood that is developed, mutual respect.... I really missed that when I retired from the Army,” says John Dorman, a former lieutenant colonel who plays goalie for the Eagles. When he joined the team, he was glad to be back around people with a similar background. “You can speak in your acronyms, and make your stupid military jokes and stuff. People get it,” he says.

For Lindsay Migala, an Air Force reservist who plays right wing for the Eagles, the team and players became “the family you never knew you had” – within the first year of her playing on the team.

Players who live near each other often get together outside of practices and games to grab a drink or do other things. The off-ice connections have even resulted in new job opportunities for some veterans who were recommended for a position by a teammate.

Although the foundation always recommends seeking help from mental health professionals, it also recognizes that community support for each and every veteran is a good way to help reduce suicide rates.

And the New England hockey community has answered the call for support. Professional players, coaches, and referees volunteer at the clinics, practices, and games; hockey rinks donate ice time and equipment; and National Hockey League teams such as the Boston Bruins have backed the Eagles with free tickets to NHL games and a chance to play charity matches before and after Bruins games.

One of the Eagles’ regular coaching volunteers is Chris Dyment, a former American Hockey League player with teams including the Providence Bruins, where he served as assistant captain. He is now a coach for the junior Islanders Hockey Club in the area and donates his time to Skate for the 22 to help new players get up to speed.

Going out of his way

The team atmosphere of lending a hand and welcoming everyone, no matter what skill level or background, comes from Colliton at the top of the foundation, says Jonathan Demers, an Army guardsman who joined the Eagles two years ago. “[Colliton] just really goes out of his way to help people in any way he can, even outside the organization. It doesn’t even have to do with hockey,” he says.

Mr. Dorman, the Eagles goalie, also pays tribute to Skate for the 22’s leader. From making sure female players feel welcome in the male-dominated group to answering calls from veterans day and night, Colliton has developed a foundation “that has made a difference in a lot of people’s lives,” Dorman says.

For Colliton, what has been most rewarding is seeing the foundation grow and witnessing the changes in players. Although some veterans come in unsure about the foundation and the Eagles, that is quickly turned around.

“You’ll see smiles; you’ll see laughter. You see guys, you know they’re fighting hard; they’re getting into it. They want to win,” Colliton says. “You’ll see determination on the ice.... The best way to put it is pride. They have pride.”

That pride and love for the Eagles and its mission have helped the operation grow. “These guys playing the games are what raises the money. They keep the program going. These guys are out there raising awareness in their own communities of the veteran suicide epidemic,” says Colliton, who notes that Skate for the 22 provides assistance to families of veterans who do commit suicide.

The work of the foundation has touched a lot of lives, but Colliton says more work needs to be done. “I want to go out of business; I want to be down to zero” veteran suicides, he says. “I want to have to pay for hockey again.”

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