While the rest of the hockey world focused on the Sochi Olympics earlier this year, a group of NHL players who weren’t after medals were instead at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, staying sharp with the help of a special guest from the Special Forces.
Michael Cathcart, who went by “Sgt. Mike” with his training partners from the Carolina Hurricanes, skated alongside the pros for 45 minutes at Cleland Ice Rink in February, led them in a team stretch, even notched a goal and an assist during the practice, according to a write-up on the team’s official website.
“It was great that the ‘Canes let him come out there and really live a dream,” then-battalion commander Lt. Col. Brad Moses said at the time.
So when word broke that, Cathcart, a sergeant first class with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, died Friday during combat operations in Afghanistan, the team joined Cathcart’s extended Army family in honoring his memory.
“The day that Mike practiced with our team at Cleland Ice Rink at Fort Bragg was a very special day for our players,” Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis said in a statement on the team’s website. “People throw around the word ‘hero’ too easily sometimes, but Mike Cathcart was a true hero. He proudly served our country and died protecting our safety and freedom. We are grateful for that day we were able to spend with him and the impact he left on our team.”
A Michigan native, Cathcart spoke glowingly about his NHL experience in a post-practice interview with the team’s website.
“Just the experience of being able to see people you idolize and everything, that was pretty cool,” he said. “Coach was running me hard. It was fast. Everything was quick. It will probably take me a day or two to process it.”
Cathcart singled out the chance to meet former NHL great Rod Brind’Amour and to work out with the Staal brothers as event highlights. The visit made an impact in both directions; the team’s tribute video (posted above) features many players offering their condolences and sharing their memories.
“It was tough to hear, obviously,” Eric Staal says in the video, posted by the team over the weekend. “You know, you talk about heroes, but for us, we got to experience one firsthand. … It was a phenomenal day at Fort Bragg.”
The team’s visit, which included a youth hockey clinic, was part of an effort involving two charity groups: the Special Forces Charitable Trust and Defending the Blue Line, which gives children of military members the chance to play ice hockey. For links and donation information, click here.