Members of Veterans Hockey League share a special bond

TAMPA, Fla. — His friend had returned from service overseas, and Andy Boutilier saw a chance to rekindle camaraderie enjoyed in a former life.

In summer 2011, Boutilier approached his friend, Jim Rathbone, with an idea. 

Boutilier had taken up hockey since Rathbone’s deployment to Kuwait as part of the Florida National Guard a year earlier. Rathbone had played the sport before his time away, and Boutilier was surprised to learn there was no league for able-bodied veterans that the two could join together. Boutilier’s search ended with a thought, one that matured into actualization.

“Well, if there’s nothing out there, maybe there’s something I can do,” he said.

That “something” became the Veterans Hockey League, a Tampa-area not-for-profit formed in April 2012. Its mission includes providing a chance for American military veterans to play hockey at no cost.

There’s the surface goal: Encourage a more active lifestyle for veterans, regardless of age, gender or former branch. Then there’s the deeper mission: Re-create the connection that developed when they served.

“You build strong bonds when you’re in the military — whether it’s a larger unit, a smaller unit — there is that bond,” said Boutilier, who was a marine for six years and now lives in Gibsonton, Fla. “The parallel between that kind of bond, and in sports as teammates, it’s eerily similar. You’ve got guys who have been out for a long time. When they first get out, at least from my experience, it’s a shock.”

On a recent Wednesday, Boutilier sat in a booth at an Ybor City restaurant, sipping from a glass of Diet Coke with his vision still in progress. Between 40-60 people belong to the league now. Since its start, the group has met about 10 times at rinks throughout the region, including multiple occasions at Tampa Bay Times Forum as guests of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Sports offer many things: Escape, connections and an ability to enjoy passions passed from one generation to the next. They also embody normalcy.

Boutilier understands the need for veterans to find healthy outlets once they live outside the military’s structure. That’s why he sat here, sharing his inspiration for a hockey league that’s actually much more. That’s why he’s hopeful that his project, one not yet large enough to form teams, can expand to provide hope to many others.

“You’re used to a certain way of life for years and years and years,” Boutilier said. “Then all of the sudden, those rules don’t apply. Everything is different, and you’re trying to find that same connection.”

A wide spectrum of participants
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Courtesy Jeff Sundmaker/Judie Sundmaker

They have served all over the world. The league’s members are a collection of backgrounds and experiences, joined by a love of the ice created from various ways of discovery.

Some arrived through word-of-mouth from a friend. Others found out after reading Internet articles. Others joined after listening to the radio.

The youngest member is age 23, the oldest 65. They are veterans of the Vietnam War, Gulf War and Operation Enduring Freedom. They are Purple Heart winners, Bronze Star recipients and Lightning season-ticket holders. Each story is different, but an appreciation for their sacrifice is the same.

“To find guys like that who have common backgrounds, who have interests that are the same, it’s quite difficult,” said Jon Music, a Riverview, Fla., resident who served in the Navy and spent time in the Middle East. “It doesn’t matter age, gender — it’s nice to have some pretty genuine guys.”

Boutilier has always viewed the league as a tribute, and that’s why he has made it simple for veterans to come and stay. The organization has gained 501c3 tax-exempt status, and everything for members is cost-free: jerseys, ice time and memories made.

The only requirements are that prospective members show proof of honorable discharge, join USA Hockey and fill out a questionnaire for placement as the league grows.

The league’s visibility has increased of late, but just as military life is about mostly anonymous service, the attention is secondary. Boutilier has spoken about the league on NHL Network. The Lightning honored the group during the team’s “Military Appreciation Night” on Nov. 7. They have skated with former Lightning players Brian Bradley and Dave Andreychuk.

But their time together is the greatest reward of all.

“We kept working at it, and people got interested in it,” said Rathbone, the league’s vice president and a Tampa resident. “The next thing you know, it’s starting to take off.”

The take-off is unique, because each member lived a life overseas that few Americans can identify with. A brotherhood begins with service, a bond formed chasing a common goal. That feeling is hard to recapture after returning home.

“It’s kind of getting back onto a team,” said Matthew Tumilty, a Seffner, Fla., resident who served in the Army and spent time in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Somalia, among other locations.

“Even though we’re playing hockey now instead of over in Afghanistan fighting, just having people with similar experiences and mentalities on the ice together — it’s different than any other leagues I play in. It’s a little more camaraderie.”

The league has other possible benefits, too. Veterans can discuss other ice-time availability throughout the region, as well as what the local veterans’ hospital is offering for care. Job-placement opportunity is another possible conversation topic.

Sights on expansion

Once, there was a need. Now, it’s filled.

The next task: Expanding to reach the league’s full potential.

“It’s an easy concept to understand,” Boutilier said. “Everyone I talk to in the hockey world about it, (they’re like), ‘Why wasn’t there something like this already?'”

Boutilier sees the league as an evolving concept. For example, it still has room to grow to where forming teams can be done without worry that enough members will arrive to hold a game.

For now, about 20-25 people come whenever the group secures ice time for about two hours each session, sometimes as a donation. The short-term goal is to expand to where teams are created. The long-term goal is to stretch the vision regionally, perhaps beyond.

“We haven’t fully developed the blueprint,” Boutilier said. “Once we’ve developed the blueprint, and we’ve worked all the kinks out … then we can take that to other areas.”

Boutilier has received interest from people in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Colorado, people wondering if the league has opportunities nearby. A revenue stream, still a work in progress, must be developed before the group can think that large.

Donated ice time is always appreciated, Boutilier said, but he has made it clear that the league intends to pay rinks.

Through it all, he has a more ambitious vision. If the league becomes established throughout the country, he pictures a day when national qualifiers are held and a champion is crowned.

From there, the United States winner can play military veterans from Canada, the United Kingdom, Finland and other hockey-loving countries. A local brainstorm could spread globally.

“Dream big,” Boutilier said.

In many ways, though, that’s a discussion for the distant future. Now, the league is about making connections, rekindling bonds on the ice and filling the hole present after a military life becomes a civilian one. 

The ice has become their outlet.

“You still kind of get that void when you’re gone (from service), because for so many years, you were used to that lifestyle,” said Kiel Varga, a Riverview, Fla., resident who served in the marines and spent time in the western Pacific. “That camaraderie you have with the person to your left, the person to your right, and then to have that be gone at the snap of a finger, it kind of leaves that void.

“Being able to participate in this league and keep in touch with other veterans, it kind of helps fill that gap.”

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.