JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
An uncontrollable cold chill bites your face, the dryness in your eyes increases with every stride and the occasional gust of wind sneaks past several layers of clothing and touches your skin like the cold water of a morning shower. But all of these unsettling sensations are merely part of the experience and excitement of playing pond hockey.
On pretty much any blistering cold winter day at Buckner Fitness Center on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Soldiers and Airmen from Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts and even as far south as California and Georgia brave the elements to play ice hockey. The talent varies as much as the size of every game, but the passion to play is always there.
For some, that passion is derived from adolescent memories of traveling with teammates on a bus to far-away old barns for travel games; for others it's finding something to do in the new, unfamiliar place that is now home.
"I love this rink, it reminds me of playing in Minnesota when I was growing up," said Senior Airman Therese Holm, 673rd Medical Operations Squadron, Mental Health Flight. "We just show up, sticks in the middle (the best way to pick teams) and just play. It's never a serious game, just a fun time."
Stationed at JBER in 2013, Holm used hockey to adjust to her new life away from home.
"When I moved here I didn't know anyone and it was my first time away from home so I leaned on something that reminded me of home: hockey," Holm said. "It really helped me meet people that had similar interests and I even joined a local women's team."
Alaska, notorious for very long winters, can be discouraging if not handled properly. One proven method to cope is hockey.
"Playing hockey in Alaska keeps me busy and involved in the community all winter," Holm said. "The winters here can be lonely and get to you if you aren't resilient. Whether I'm skating alone, with my women's team, or playing in an outdoor pick up game, my method of coping with long Alaska winters is what I love."
Hockey has existed on JBER since World War II, when Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base had numerous teams that competed in similar fashion to our current base intramural sports leagues. The headline of the January 1945 issue of the Sourdough Sentinel, the Fort Richardson base paper said, "Eager Beaver Victory Starts Hockey Season, Railway Battalion Drops Out of League."
That article, more than 71 years old, highlights two important things: first, whenever you need a team name in the military, it will never be serious. Second, the passion of a game is in itself, everlasting and important to esprit de corps of military personnel.
Senior Airman Joseph Dumancas, a dental laboratory technician with the 673d Dental Squadron, and Staff Sgt. David Kellums, an air traffic controller with the 3rd Operational Support Squadron, decided their passion for playing ice hockey would be much easier to share though social media.
"David and I were always wanting to skate but each time we went out it was only us and maybe a random guy here and there," Dumancas said. "So, we decided to create the Facebook group JBER Rink Rats to try and get people to come out so we can have a game of puck."
What started out as just a few friends slowly grew to more than 50 Airmen, Soldiers, and even a few Coast Guardsmen.
"I feel it helps bring us closer to not only our Army brothers and sisters but also spouses who play or want to learn," Dumancas said. "I really hope this group allows people to network, make friends and most importantly, play hockey."
A service member's days are full of training, briefings, appointments, missions and time with families. Any additional time may be reserved for time to relax and prepare for the next day. For the JBER Rink Rats and the many others who join in on games, hockey is their time to relax. No longer is the mind focused on that long training sortie, the orchestrated field maneuver, or the delicate process of creating a porcelain crown. Now the focus is on making that toe drag to deke the defender, powering a crisp pass to a wide-open teammate or simply keeping up with faster skaters.
Hockey is no different from any other sport as they appeal to our senses. Whether it is the smell of freshly cut grass of a football field, the horn at a basketball game, or a 90-mile per hour fastball, what we experience playing sports allows us to feel the world around us. It allows us to create relationships with people we may have otherwise paid no attention to and, like any other sport, it's much deeper than what the eye allows us to see. It is a lifestyle where pain, suffering and defeat is sought after and greatly appreciated.
"We're all fans of different hockey teams, from different cities, states and have different taste in music," Holm said. "We are all completely different, but because of hockey we are in a sense the same."