Blackhawks share ice, admiration with wounded veterans

CHICAGO -- U.S. Army Capt. Mark Little was advised to create a goal for himself after losing both of his legs to an explosive device in Baghdad in 2007.

Playing hockey again, something he had done since childhood, was his first thought, but he quickly dismissed it as soon as the idea came out of his mouth.

“[My physical therapist] said, ‘You know what? Let’s talk tomorrow,’” the 29-year-old Little recalled. “And she brought in a double amputee, and he brought his pair of Rollerblade prosthetics that they just made, first pair ever the week before. He showed them to me. He said, ‘Dude, you can do whatever you want.’ That was it. Fine, I’m playing.”

On Saturday, Little, along with about 20 other players from the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program, an organization that gives wounded veterans a chance to play hockey in ways fitted to their physical needs, joined the Chicago Blackhawks for a morning skate and loose scrimmage on the outdoor rink at Soldier Field.

For Little and his teammates, the opportunity to skate alongside professional players was a dream come true. For the Blackhawks, it was the least they could do.

“It’s definitely really special for us,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “We look up to them. We appreciate everything they’ve done for us. To us, they’re the real heroes. To share the ice and have them out for practice with us is a pretty big honor for the guys.”

Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane couldn’t get over seeing players without arms or legs playing hockey and them not thinking of themselves as unique.

“It’s pretty crazy that they’re out here skating around,” Kane said. “You try to talk to a few of them as much as you can. They don’t seem to complain about anything. Those things just kind of happen. It’s pretty crazy their outlook on life. They’re tough people, got to give them credit.”

As Little explained, he never allowed his injury to affect who he was as a person or his love for hockey.

“It’s who you are before the injury that leads into afterward,” Little said. “The injury is an event in time. That’s it. Who you are before, that’s who you are after. Now I come into three pieces instead of one.

“People say we’re heroes or whatever have you, but we hardly see ourselves that way. We are just lucky to be here. A lot of our brothers and sisters are not, and we’re so fortunate to get these experience. Middle of Soldier Field. You can’t say anything more about it. It’s Soldier Field. And that’s what we are; we’re soldiers in the end. Marines, sailors, airmen out here playing hockey, the sport we love. I said a lot, but I’m pretty much speechless.”

Marine Lance Cpl. Josh Misiewicz left Soldier Field with a similar feeling.

Misiewicz grew up in La Grange, Ill., and has been a Blackhawks fan since his youth. He joined the USA Warriors after losing both of his legs when he stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan in 2011.

“One of the guys involved with the Warriors got me out here,” the 24-year-old Misiewicz said. “From there on, I just played more hockey. It’s been good. It’s good therapy, good everything.

"It was cool to be out on the ice with [the Blackhawks]. They’re so fast. You think they’re fast when you’re watching them in the stands. At the ice level, it’s unbelievable. I’m definitely taking some memories from this -- that’s for sure.”

Both teams felt they were leaving with something.

“It definitely gives you some perspective,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. “Sometimes when things aren’t going well at the rink, in your personal life, to take a look at what some of these guys have sacrificed and what they’re going through, it’ll definitely put things in perspective.”

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said, "It’s special here. It’s Soldier Field and getting to play with the Warriors here today. They invited us to have a little pregame skate with them. They got a big game tonight. It was fun having a game with them as well. Our guys enjoyed it. It was a great day. I think we enjoyed it all.”