Winter Classic profile: Minnesota Warriors home for wounded military vets

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The 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic at Target Field in Minneapolis on Jan. 1 will not just be an outdoor game between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues, it will also be a celebration of the “State of Hockey.” Part of that celebration will include various hockey teams and clubs from throughout Minnesota skating on one of several auxiliary rinks at Target Field. NHL.com is profiling each of the teams. Today, the Minnesota Warriors.

When Curt Wilson and the Minnesota Warriors practice, play or gather with their families off the ice, there is much more happening than a common enjoyment of hockey. 

“There’s a lot of healing going on,” said Wilson, who with five fellow Warriors age 37 to 49, will be part of the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues at Target Field in Minneapolis on Jan. 1 (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE).

The Warriors program, roughly 45 teams operating nationwide in conjunction with USA Hockey’s disabled hockey program, was founded in 2010 by U.S. Army veteran Andy Qualy. Its mission is to provide a therapeutic, recreational and educational opportunity for wounded, injured or otherwise disabled U.S. military veterans.

In a hockey environment, the Warriors offer participants a return to mainstream society following their military service in a setting that encourages a camaraderie to promote a gentle assimilation into and a greater comfort with daily life.

Video: Veterans play hockey on Minnesota Warriors

Wilson learned of the Minnesota Warriors in 2017, its program operating in Minneapolis-St. Paul and in Duluth. He was soon skating with the Twin Cities team and quickly began work on establishing the St. Cloud program that he founded the following year.

He remembers 19 veterans scrimmaging in the first workout. Fourteen signed on that day and membership on St. Cloud’s two teams is now about 70. Three teams operate in the Twin Cities and two in Duluth with one getting started in Mankato.

With strong backing and encouragement from the Minnesota Wild, the Minnesota Warriors have won three USA Hockey Warrior “A” Division national championships and a Warrior “B” Division title.

Wilson was 26 when he joined the U.S. Navy, deployed to Guam during the horrors of 9/11, then sent to Iraq in March 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. His latter tour was part of the initial march into Baghdad, 33 consecutive days of sustained combat operations, his air detachment the first into Iraq.

Upon return to the United States in the fall of 2003, his battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. 

The Warriors proved to be the perfect place for him to “regain a purpose again,” in his words, in the company of fellow veterans to whom this bonding is without a price.

In June, Wilson was named recipient of the 2021 USA Hockey Disabled Athlete of the Year Award, an honor he says he shares with his wife, Norma, their seven children, and the great many who are part of what he describes as “my support network.” The attention has been a little overwhelming for the 49-year-old who views himself as a private person, much happier to talk about others.

“Once we get out of the service, there is something that we all miss and then kind of long for — the camaraderie and brotherhood that we have established during our years of service,” Wilson said. “The Warriors bring us together, allow us all to kind of regain that purpose, to hold each other accountable.

“We all have a bit of darkness and this program allows us to help cope with that and to get over some of these issues. Being around like-minded people is really helpful. Once we leave the military, many of us find ourselves kind of searching for a purpose. Most of us don’t really talk too much about our experiences but you can look into someone’s eyes and just know. 

“You know what they’ve gone through. Everyone has a story but there’s a lot that is just simply unsaid and doesn’t need to be said. We can walk into the locker room for a practice and know that there’s someone who’s not right. Our goal, hopefully by the end of that practice, is to have that person smiling again.”

On New Year’s Day, having worn the uniforms of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps, six Warriors will bond on hockey’s largest stage.

“There are struggles about how and where we’re going to fit back into civilization after the service,” Wilson said. “The Warriors program is fantastic for the team building, the locker room, the camaraderie and the brotherhood. We’re super excited to be included in the Winter Classic.”

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