By Jenn Whittaker
The Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) is an example of both pain and joy. “We envision a generation of Wounded Warriors well-adjusted in body, receiving the care they need to maximize rehabilitation and live active and healthy lives. Everyone’s recovery process is different,” The WWP website says. This year’s Athletes For Teamwork And Charity/Wounded Warriors Hockey Club vs. University of Tampa will be held at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon on Sunday, Oct. 25 with puck drop at 12:15 p.m. The minimum donation is $10.00.
The history of charity hockey on the Florida Space Coast begins with Bill Hungate and is a story of both pain and joy. “Back in 2010, I was asked to play for the Florida Institute of Technology by coach Bret Thompson,” Hungate said. “I had just applied for the Ph.D. program so I did; I was 48 at the time. Three days prior, my father had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He always wanted me to play major college hockey. If Bret would have asked four days sooner, I’m sure I would have passed on the opportunity.”
Not long after the Spartan Hockey Club’s inaugural year, Mr. Hungate worked to establish a charity team with military and federal service players. They raise funds for the WWP and approached Dr. Stephen Kucera, head coach of the Spartans Hockey Club, about becoming involved. The team is known as the Athletes For Teamwork And Charity (AFTAC) and skates with Wounded Warriors Hockey Club (WWHC) uniforms.
“Dr. K remembered me from a previous game,” Hungate said. “The exhibition game with UT has grown since then and it is now real. We look to establish an annual event tied into alumni, coaches and staff raising funds for charitable causes. AFTAC/WWHC has no direct sponsorship from the WWP but the donations from games are given directly or partially to the WWP. However, this non-affiliation frees up the club to also conduct exhibition games to support local causes, such as raising funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in honor of Curtis McIntyre, a former UT hockey player that passed away. It is that type of spirit and honor that makes this game wonderful.”
Hungate not only helped established the AFTAC/WWHC, but will play on the opposing team. This is a friendly exhibition game so there will be no checking.
Kucera said, “The head of UT’s Student Health Center is also our team physician and he is also a veteran. Since the event will be UT coaches and alumni skating together, the team is hoping he will be able to join them in tending to folks who may push too hard and need his aid.” They are currently working with retired Lt. Col. Robert Bruns in UT’s Development Office. He has been instrumental in getting the word out.
“One of our alumni, Kevin Eck, is also a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan and was a true team leader and role model for the guys when he skated for UT a few years back,” Kucera said.
Eck served four years in the Army and will now be making an appearance in the exhibition game as well.
“I remain connected to the alumni community through playing hockey in an adult league with a few guys and reminisce about the old days when we used to play for UT,” Eck said. “I was not injured myself, but have a few buddies that were injured and even killed. I know of one person who has benefited from the WWP. Any time you can donate to the organization you’re doing great things for the wounded warriors who put their lives on the line. It means a lot to me personally because I’ve been there and witnessed what goes on.”
Goalie coach, Mark Baccoli, will be playing in the AFTAC/WWHC vs. UT exhibition game. Baccoli has been involved with the Spartans Hockey Club since its inception in 2010 and is now an alumnus. He played as the starting goalie for three years and served as team president. This is both his first year as a core staff member and the first time he will participate in a AFTAC/WWHC charity event as the starting goaltender. “I expect it to be a very fun game,” Baccoli said. “I don’t expect any nastiness at all. We’re all here for a good cause. I expect it to be a lot of friendly competition. But we’re hockey players and I’m sure they have a lot of veterans on their team; it’ll be a good battle. If I’m worried about anything it’s that I don’t want to underestimate them. I want it to be a good competitive game that’s fun for the fans, fun for everybody. It shows that there is strong UT spirit even after players graduate and there will be opportunities for them to come back and support great events such as this one. It’s a great opportunity to come back and play with the players I graduated with a couple years ago and play with my fellow coaches,” Baccoli said.
“Our veterans and active duty personnel sacrifice so much to protect our country and our way of life,” Kucera said. “It is incumbent upon us to give back and when Bill approached me about scheduling this game and working together to raise funds, we were all in. We look forward to a fun game and the good company of Bill’s team in our barn’s pub afterwards.”