Coming off a four-game losing streak, the Minnesota Warriors faced down the AHA Piranhas at Shoreview Ice Arena on leap day, the last day in February.
In the locker room before the game, a player for the Warriors strapped his hockey gear over a prosthetic leg. His war injury doesn't distinguish him from his teammates. Each player in a green Warriors jersey, from Vietnam vets to young men coming home from the conflicts in the Middle East, were injured or disabled during their military service.
They don't come to the Warriors for therapy or support. But, during late nights on the mostly donated ice of Twin Cities arenas, many of them find it. Now the team's hoping to spread that camaraderie to veterans in other parts of the state.
FROM FOUR MEMBERS TO 40
After he was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, team captain Andy Qualy assumed he'd never skate again.
"My leg from the knee down was shattered. I now have a rod in there that sort of holds it together," Qualy said.
He spent seven months in rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"You're not thinking, 'I want to go home and play hockey.' You're thinking, 'I just want to go home.'"
Eventually, Qualy did return to Minnesota. And that's when he heard about a Washington D.C.-based hockey team of disabled veterans.
"We have a lot of disabled veterans in Minnesota who are into hockey," Qualy said. "I thought, 'Man, we don't have this up here?'"
In November 2010, Qualy and three friends formed the Warriors. It's now grown to over 40 players at all skill levels. The team asks players to provide their own sticks and skates, but covers much of the rest of the equipment costs through private donations and a couple big grants.
"When I got involved I had no idea what the interest level was going to be," Qualy said. "As you can see here, for a game like tonight, we could have six lines out there because there are that many guys who just want to play."
MAKING IT ON THE ICE
Jeremy Smith, 30, of Coon Rapids was struck in the head by the butt stock of an Iraqi rifle, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. He also suffers from PTSD.
"It's not mainly what happened to me that really got to me when I came back, it's the people who didn't come back with me," Smith said. "You dwell on those things."
After he came back from Iraq, Smith had trouble adjusting to civilian life. He drank too much, isolated himself and got into fights, which led to trouble with the law.
When a friend told him about the team, Smith hesitated.
"You feel burdened by everything you've dealt with," Smith said. "You don't want to go out there and you don't want to mingle in public because it seems so foreign to you."
But his friend persisted, and Smith eventually agreed to give the team a try. "Ever since then, I've been all about the Warriors."
'DRINK MORE WATER AND LESS BEER'
In Shoreview Arena's warming room, Ryanne Reese held an Italian greyhound puppy wearing a green sweater emblazoned with a skull. The puppy belongs to her boyfriend, Jeremiah Lord, who served in Bosnia in the early 2000s. They live together in Stillwater and just adopted the dog with plans to train it as a therapy pet.
Lord, 28, suffers from PTSD. Before he joined the team, he was going through a rough spot where he felt his life was on the line. His aunt referred him to the Warriors.
"At that time I didn't think I had a friend," Lord said. "They've scooped me under their wing, and I've got 20 brothers now."
Reese said the Warriors lifted a weight from Lord's shoulders, and gave him another family to replace the military family he lost.
"It's not like, 'I have my side, you have your side,'" Reese said of the Warriors' style of play. "If they're on the ice, somebody is always trailing the other person who has the puck so they can drop it off."
Sammi Korinek, 39, was the first woman to join the Warriors. She didn't realize how much she missed that military community until she played with the team. When she got tangled in her harness during parachute training, the nerves in her neck were injured, damaging her left arm.
"Everyone comes out on the ice with a different skill, everyone comes out on the ice with a different injury," she said. "It's amazing how fast the team becomes aware of that, they all know that I have two arms that don't match anymore."
The teammates have served everywhere from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Two members are currently deployed to Kuwait. Some of the older guys offer advice to more recently returned veterans, especially those who suffer from PTSD and other mental disabilities, and who often struggle with alcohol and relationship issues.
"Somebody who is coming in, who does struggle with these issues, can hear someone say, 'Oh yeah, I was in group yesterday,' " Korinek said. "It removes the shame, there's no shame in being broken, there's no shame in not being able."
Despite all the testaments to the team's therapeutic effects, Qualy is adamant that the Warriors are "not a mental health clinic."
"It's almost a byproduct of what we're doing. It's almost by default that it happens," Qualy said. "What we're saying is: here's a stick, get out there and work your butt off, and when you go home, drink more water and less beer."
PLANS TO SPREAD ACROSS STATE
Tens of thousands of disabled veterans live in Minnesota. Veteran's Administration statistics show 66,894 veterans were collecting disability in 2010.
The Warriors, and its phalanx of volunteers, say they can still do more.
With an assist from the Amputee Coalition, the team just received a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Warriors' board plans to use the influx of cash to explore expanding the Twin Cities-centric team to other parts of the state where there are disabled veterans who love hockey. There are no concrete decisions yet about where the new teams will be located.
The Warriors also want to reach out to more disabled veterans, especially for the team's mostly-dormant sled hockey team, a variation on hockey that includes those who can't play standing hockey.
Sue Stout, spokesperson for the Amputee Coalition, said these "young warriors" increase the visibility of people living with disabilities.
"The exciting part for us isn't just that they're playing hockey," Stout said. "They're a support system for each other."
That commitment spurred Mark Stanford, 33, to make a snowy 60-mile drive from his home in Pine City to the game in Shoreview. Stanford is one of the team's goalies.
He said being on the team has helped him integrate more into civilian life, although it isn't always easy. He still avoids big crowds and sometimes can't shake the feeling that someone is following him.
"It's the camaraderie that really does it for me, and I can probably vouch for everybody on the team," Stanford said. "Hockey is a perk."
The leap day game started slow for the Warriors. Slapshots went high and banged across the glass. A player landed in the penalty box for checking after he lost the puck. But going into the second period, the team found its groove and didn't look back. The Warriors beat the Piranhas 8-1.
Everybody on the team celebrated the end of the losing streak. But winning isn't the only measure of success for many of the Warriors.