Local hockey team is helping veterans heal
By Kelly Vetter
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
It was just like any other hockey game at Iceland Sports Complex. It was cold, there were bodies being slammed up against the glass barriers and the crowd was small – made up mostly of friends and family members of the players. But one thing made this game unique: the players.
The Ice Warriors are a hockey team made up entirely of veterans and active-duty military men, and when this writer observed a recent game against Great Flood Brewing Company’s team, they won 7-0. They play on Sunday nights in the C-Lager League of the Louisville Adult Hockey Players Association, where all the tournaments and trophies are named after beers.
The Warriors’ first game took place on Sept. 16. They now have a 5-1-1 record so far, which is impressive considering this is their inaugural season. With 17 men ranging from ages 27 to 55, the Warriors are the first all-veteran hockey team in Louisville. They only practice twice during the season, once at the beginning and once before the playoffs, but their record proves that they are thriving.
Jon Atchison, the fearless leader, started the team – which is now a certified nonprofit – after watching the Stanley Cup last year with his children and seeing an all-veteran team from Michigan. He immediately knew he wanted to bring something like that to Louisville, so he became certified as a coach and referee and began coaching at different children’s programs in the city. Atchinson also started asking veterans he knew if they would be interested and received positive feedback, so he quickly set off to make his dream a reality.
With the team motto of “No one left behind,” it’s obvious that the organization isn’t just about hockey; it’s about giving veterans an outlet. Atchison, who suffers from PTSD from his time in law enforcement and as a Marine, feels comfortable when he’s at Iceland coaching the Ice Warriors. It’s even one of the few places he can go without bringing his service dog.
Originally from Akron, Ohio, Atchinson served in the Marine Corps for advanced infantry, teaching new soldiers after boot camp how to handle and fire weapons they would use in combat. He moved to Louisville in 2003 to play for the Louisville Fire arena football team. After meeting the woman who would become his wife, he decided to stay. During the first few games of the hockey season, Atchison played goalie. But the former football player had already experienced a few concussions, and after suffering one too many while playing for the Ice Warriors, he’s now restricted from playing on the ice. But he is still able to act as the head coach. He handles the team’s business matters by himself but always takes his men into account when making decisions. “If I’m doing something, I always take their input,” Atchison said. “Even though it’s kind of my decision, I like getting their input because it involves them, and they were involved in the groundwork of it.”
Atchison must also handle the finances for the team and navigating the new nonprofit status, which means he can start working on obtaining sponsorships and begin fundraising efforts. Currently, the players and Atchison pay for everything out of their own pockets.
When asked about future plans for the team, Atchison laid out his intention. He hopes to start a team of new veterans called Fully Fatigued to play in the Louisville Adult Hockey Players Association Never-Ever league, which is for teams of adults who have never played hockey. Atchison is hopeful that they can eventually play against other veteran teams throughout the nation.
“We’re going to end up joining the National Veterans Hockey League, which is 15 other veteran teams across the country,” he explained. “My ultimate goal is to get as many veteran teams as I can in different leagues and also start a sled hockey team, but that’s going to come with more sponsorship.”
The Louisville Ice Warriors play Sundays at Iceland Sports Complex. The games are free to attend. The regular season runs until Nov. 16, which is followed by playoffs and, potentially, the championship. VT
Player Profiles – Meet two of the Warriors
Matt Puckett, who plays center for the Ice Warriors, was one of the first people Jon Atchison reached out to about starting the team, and Puckett was immediately interested. Puckett is originally from Brooklyn, New York, but came to Louisville for a family visit and enjoyed the city so much, he decided to move here. He began playing hockey through the Never-Ever program at Iceland. He served in the Marine Corps for more than six years as a military police officer based in Lexington, with a few deployments during his time with the Marines. Puckett loved playing hockey in the first place, and when he heard he could represent the military through the sport, he was excited to join the Ice Warriors.
“I love being around other vets,” he said. “The main thing I love is the camaraderie. It’s really close to kind of being in the military. Hockey is an aggressive sport and you have that drive to be the best and wanting to win, so it’s a lot of the same feelings in a sense.”
Kyle Vanyo, a center for the Warriors, grew up in New Jersey, playing roller and street hockey, but he couldn’t afford the expensive costs of equipment for playing on the ice. He eventually earned enough money to buy what he needed and has been playing hockey for about five years. Vanyo discovered the Ice Warriors in a unique way. He played on a hockey team where he was stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy for two years. While ordering jerseys for his Italian team through a Canadian company, he stumbled upon a photo on the company’s Instagram and saw a photo of a Louisville Ice Warriors jersey. Knowing he was preparing to move to Louisville, he reached out to Atchison, and when he found out it was an all-veteran team, he was eager to join. Meanwhile, Atchison was enthusiastic about having recruited all the way from Italy.
Vanyo just recently left active-duty status in the Air Force, where he served as a weather flight commander – issuing weather alerts for army bases and military pilots – and is settling in as a Louisvillian and an Ice Warrior. “I think it’s a really cool thing to be a part of,” he said. “I’m glad I found it because I think it gives a lot of the guys, including myself, a nice outlet to have and a nice bonding experience. This is the first group that I knew (in Louisville). I wasn’t even working when I got here so this was my first team activity.”