Hockey Saves organization brings game to vets
Jax Andrews was lost in Consol Energy Center recently, walking around in circles until Penguins star Sidney Crosby — “the nicest person I've ever met,” she said — offered directions.
It was fitting, really, because Andrews is making a life out of giving people direction.
Andrews is the founder of Hockey Saves, an organization that returns veterans back from service in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan to their first love: hockey.
Even as the veterans were half a world away, many were thinking about hockey, she learned.
“I realized that these guys love the game and get so much comfort and joy from the game,” Andrews said. “So, now, the game can take care of them.”
Andrews has not served in the military, but the native New Yorker lost friends in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. From then on, she felt a deep connection to those who defend America and, during a trip to Atlanta more than a year ago, put a plan into action.
All veterans are welcome at Hockey Saves, a group that organizes games and purchases ice time at rinks across America for veterans.
And, really, Hockey Saves is more than an organization that organizes pickup games.
“People don't know what it's like,” said Nick Hoth, who serves in the Air Force and is the junior varsity hockey coach for North Hills. “It's not easy to adjust back into society, especially when you're used to having so much structure in your life. Being around hockey is such of a blessing for all of us.”
Hoth, who has a background in psychology, insists that returning to “life as normal” isn't easy.
Andrews said she understands.
“Coming back from being overseas is like going from Mars to Earth for a lot of these guys,” she said. “So many of them have shared with me just how fearful they are to return to a civilian life. It's a problem for so many of them. And that's where hockey comes up.”
It comes up in more ways than one.
While Hockey Saves is devoted to providing ice time and free equipment to veterans and acting military members — Robert Morris and Pitt-Greensburg are donating ice time — Andrew's vision is deeper.
Finding civilian jobs for former troops is Andrews' ultimate goal.
“We want to do everything we can to open doors for people,” she said. “We have some guys who are trying to become referees and have had clinics sponsored.
“So many of these guys are so worried about not being able to get a job when they come home. It's their biggest fear, so we're doing all we can to get them jobs and open up doors in all avenues of hockey.”
The response from the hockey world has been overwhelming.
Many NHL teams have donated uniforms and equipment. The Penguins hosted veterans affiliated with Hockey Saves last month in connection with Veterans Day.
“I wonder if people know how much stuff like that means to us,” said Brandon Laskey, a National Guardsman and assistant coach at Pitt-Greensburg. “The closeness of people in the military is pretty similar to the closeness of a hockey team. Many of us really need that.”
It's clear many of the veterans still crave hockey.
“One time we were in Qatar,” Hoth said. “We played street hockey there. We had (Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury goalie cutouts) to be goalies. It was great.”
The organization receives funding primarily through donations, and Pittsburgh has become a hotbed, Andrews said. A fundraisier for Hockey Saves will be held at Mario's on the South Side during the Penguins-Rangers game Jan. 3.
Andrews said she believes this is just the beginning.
“That day in Pittsburgh was so perfect, and it's times like those that make this very rewarding,” she said. “I really believe hockey is the greatest game in the world and that hockey people are the greatest in the world.
“I know they're going to open more and more doors for these guys.”
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