Heartfelt social connections bonding fans and players

Shane Hudella knows he can always count on NHL players to answer the call.

Shane Hudella knows he can always count on NHL players to answer the call.

For over 10 years, Hudella, who retired from military duty with the U.S. Army in June 2012 at the rank of First Sergeant, has come to know several pro hockey players through their shared efforts in supporting United Heroes League (UHL), the organization he founded in 2009.

Formerly known as Defending the Blue Line, the UHL helps kids of military members enjoy the opportunity to participate in athletics, by providing free sports equipment, camps, special events, and financial assistance for registration fees and other costs associated with sports.

The UHL has worked with the NHLPA on various initiatives throughout the years, including equipment donations for military kids through Goals & Dreams, the association’s grassroots hockey fund that has provided 80,000 kids (in 34 countries) with the opportunity to play the game of hockey.

“The guys have had our back for 10-plus years,” said Hudella. “They are incredibly committed individuals, who realize they get to play the greatest game in the world because of the men and women who serve. They have that mutual admiration of they’re pros at hockey and our men and women are pros at being in the military. I don’t take the relationship with the players for granted.”

Hudella’s latest initiative is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected millions worldwide, and temporarily halted several sports leagues and events, including the 2020-21 NHL season.

With self-isolation and social distancing measures in place around the globe in an effort to combat the coronavirus, Hudella reached out several NHLPA members to see if they would take some time to have a video chat with a military member’s kid.

As always, he received an overwhelming response from the players.

The lineup, so far, includes Nick Bjugstad, Brent Burns, Charlie Coyle, Thomas Greiss, Zach Parise, Nate Schmidt, Nick Seeler, recent NHL alumnus Matt Hendricks, and Gigi Marvin (USWNT).

“The players have been the backbone of our organization from the start,” said Hudella, who was on active duty for the Minnesota Army National Guard and was deployed for Operation Desert Storm in 1990. “They’ve all been great about donating their time to the men and women who serve both Canada and the U.S. After we got around the early hysteria created by the coronavirus, I saw a lot of giving grinding to a halt. A lot of our giving comes from hockey tickets that the players provide, or special experiences like the Incredible All-Star Heroes event (link to story) we did with the NHLPA.”

Hudella, who also has NFL and MLB players making video calls to fans, felt it was an appropriate time to step up for military members and their families.

“I got to thinking that they need us now more than ever, especially their families and kids. Our service members are trained to deploy, fight and respond to things going on in our homelands and abroad. However, this is the first time, in my lifetime, that service members are going away with the added burden of concern about the wellbeing of their family. Typically, when you get the call for active duty or to respond, whether it’s home or away, you leave knowing you have a strong support system in place for your family from the local military community. It’s different now.

“Men and women are answering that call with the concern of having to leave their family during this crisis a brand new baby, aging parents, close friends and it creates an added stress. I wanted to do something. The players are just like everyone else, staying at home, hunkered down, and waiting to see what happens in the world. I just started reaching out to guys, letting them know that people in the military could use a boost right now. I started texting the guys, asking if they’d be willing to hop on the phone and make a call, talk a little hockey and boost their spirits, letting them know you’re thinking about them and their family. The response has been amazing.”

And it’s also been heartfelt.

After a quick introduction from Hudella, New York Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss spoke with nine-year-old Cade Bowers.

Bowers’ father, Josh Bowers, has 20 years of service with United States Army, and is currently on active duty.

Due to the sensitivity of his role as Master Sergeant, Josh, deployed over a dozen times throughout his military life, has missed several important moments in Cade’s life.

Despite the sacrifices both father and son have had to make, their relationship remains strong.

Greiss enjoyed the chance to take questions from a fellow backstopper, and offered up some great answers, including what he might be doing if he wasn’t playing in the NHL.

Spoiler alert: something to do with architecture or physics.

“I’m very happy and grateful to be able to work with the UHL and have the opportunity to do things like this,” Greiss told NHLPA.com. “It doesn’t take much out of my day to make a quick phone call and hopefully put a smile on a kid’s face.”

It’s exactly what the players are doing.

“From my lens, growing up playing sports, I think it’s awesome that the hockey players, like Thomas, take the time do something like this,” said Josh. “At the end of the day, that’s what gets kids fired up to play sports watching the pros on TV, making the big plays and the big saves. That’s what kids want to be like, so it says a lot about the players when they are taking time out of their schedule to talk to reach out and talk to kids. Thomas was awesome at it.”

The conversation, and the efforts of UHL, has left a lasting impression on both Josh and Cade.

“He was on top of the world after that,” said Josh. “His school is almost doing a virtual online class, where he could submit the video so that the teacher could see it. Cade is into all sports. Hockey was just something he did, and he liked it. He always wanted to play it every year, but the switch really flipped this year when he decided he wanted to be his team’s goalie, full time. I thought, ‘Great… now I’ve got to go buy goalie pads.’ But the UHL took care of that for us.

“Ironically, it was through Thomas and a deal he had with a hockey company, that Cade got those pads. For all of this happen, the great work of the UHL, and for Cade to talk to the person who got him those pads to use Army lingo, it went from flash to bang for Cade this hockey season.”

Nate Schmidt, four games shy of reaching the 400 games-played plateau, jumped on board with Hudella the moment he received his text.

The Minnesota native, in his third season with the Vegas Golden Knights, spoke with 17-year-old Jacob Baird, whose father, Lt. Colonel Bob Baird, is currently on active duty as a member of the United States Air Force.

A big Golden Knights fan, Jacob, who is on the autism spectrum, is enduring a difficult time being separated from his father.

“The call was fantastic,” said Schmidt. “Jacob’s a great guy. For me, anything we can do to give back to the community, to give back to kids you hope it’s something where you help take their mind off of things for a little while. It’s incredibly important to show our appreciation for those that go out and fight for our freedoms.”

The experience also afforded Schmidt the chance to take on an unofficial welcome wagon role for his team.

“The family just moved to Las Vegas and they’re new to the city. If I can just be a friend, or that they now know someone in town that’s important. It’s what being a community is all about. When people come to a new place, it takes a while to feel comfortable, to feel settled. For Jacob and his family, for all they have sacrificed, the least we can do is have a 10 or 15 phone minute phone call to see how they are doing. He’s a great kid. I hope we can get him out to game. He’s never been to a game here, so I told him it would be great to get to see him and get him out to one.”

Fans can watch videos of the calls through the UHL’s Twitter feed and here.

As for how long the player-fan interactions will continue, Hudella isn’t quite sure.

One thing he is certain of, however, is that more players will get involved.

“In terms of duration, we don’t know. We do know the guys are always willing to give of their time. If it stretches into a few weeks or a month, I’m sure the guys will be happy to make a call or two. The list grows as we reach out to guys to see if they want to get involved. We know we can lift the spirits of our military through the players.