Sunday, December 17, 2017
Colleges

Veteran of "Black Hawk Down" operation inspires Union College hockey team in Frozen Four

As sporting seasons come to a close, the urge to describe elimination games and series in terms of war metaphors seems to rise. Games are described as battles, critical passes and scores as bombs, and defeats as deaths.

There are parallels between war and sports, especially ones like hockey. Just ask Frozen Four-bound Union College and one of its biggest fans, retired 1st Sgt. Matt Eversmann. As a Army Ranger, Eversmann did two overseas tours of duty, one in Iraq and another in Somalia, including action in the Battle of Mogadishu, better known by the title of the movie it inspired: Black Hawk Down.

"The whole dynamic is very similar," Eversmann said. "Hockey is a tough sport, it's not for the faint or weak-hearted. It's a physical, physical game. Everything you do on the ice directly affects your teammates, those skating in front of you, behind you, it doesn't matter. There's an intrinsic quality that is just like what it's like to be in the military getting ready for battle."

Eversmann is a Union hockey fan by marriage. When he married his wife, Tori, on May 18, 2002, he inherited a Union alumnus. Father-in-law Ned Dukehart is a 1973 graduate of the liberal arts school of about 2,000 students, which does not give athletic scholarships.

During his 15-month deployment to Iraq in 2006-07, the Dutchmen, at Dukehart's suggestion, put together a care package to send to Eversmann. Head coach Rick Bennett, then an assistant, remembers that well, as he was the one who took it to the post office.

"I remember writing on it the exact address, and they told me at the post office that I couldn't do that for security reasons," said Bennett, in his first year as head coach. "So they helped me with that and made sure it went to the right place with the right labels. It was interesting."

In the box was a Union hockey cap that Eversmann wore while he was in Southwest Baghdad, then a stronghold of Al-Qaida and hotbed of sectarian violence. It was a welcome piece of home for the lifelong hockey fan originally from Long Island, N.Y.

"That was a tough separation from your friends and family," said Eversmann, who has a young daughter, Molly. "Every letter, every care package meant so much. And particularly if you're a hockey fan, to get something from a hockey team, that's sort of extra special. Who wouldn't want to be associated with a sports team? How cool is that?"

Recently, Eversmann, who now lives in Baltimore, gave something back to Union. His father-in-law again reached out to his alma mater to set Eversmann up for his first Dutchmen hockey game. Bennett had another idea: Would Eversmann be willing to address the team?

So, before Union's Feb. 3 contest against Colgate, Eversmann made a surprise appearance in the locker room. On an earlier bus trip, Bennett had shown his team Black Hawk Down, the movie depiction of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, which claimed the lives of 18 American soldiers over the two-day span. Eversmann was an Army Ranger Sergeant who dropped from a helicopter into the battleground.

"We knew we had a speaker, and guys were guessing on who it was, a range of guys from boxers to NHL players or GMs," said Jeremy Welsh, the Dutchmen's leading scorer. "When they introduced him, everyone was awestruck. He relayed what they were going through in their minds on the helicopter ride into the city with his group of soldiers, which he equated to teammates. You prepare beforehand, you put in the hard work and the training with your teammates, and once you hit the ice, you just let your instincts take over."

The experience left Bennett feeling like an awestruck child, and he asked Eversmann for his autograph (that's only the third signature he's ever asked for; the other two are former Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr and former Cowboys defensive lineman Randy White). Eversmann gave Bennett something else too, something tangible like a baseball cap: a combat-worn, black-and-grey Army Ranger patch, shaped like a finish-line ribbon. Bennett always keeps it in his left pants pocket.

As Union has advanced to the first Frozen Four berth in its history, Bennett and Eversmann have remained in touch. Bennett says Eversmann writes great emails with inspirational sayings. His favorite?

"The enemy has a vote in every battle. The warriors who have what it takes will go back to the battlefield stronger."

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