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NHL.com: A day to pause, remember and thank veterans, troops

Tuesday, 11.11.2008 / 12:38 PM / Features
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NHL.com: A day to pause, remember and thank veterans, troops
On Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in the U.S, the NHL honors the sacrifices of veterans and troops stationed around the globe.
The phrase is a call to action for every player who pulls on a Montreal Canadiens jersey, displayed in full view for everyone who enters the dressing room.

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To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.


Those words, of course, were not originally about hockey, but rather the urgings of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving in World War I. His lines were not intended to exhort future generations of hockey players to win games, instead to soberly remember the carnage of war.

McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields on May 3, 1915 as a testament to the terrible destruction of the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium during "The Great War." Thousands of men gave what Abraham Lincoln called earlier in history "the last full measure of devotion."

 In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD, Canadian Army

Come Tuesday, fans will gather in 6 NHL arenas to enjoy hockey. For many, it will be a ritual conducted hundreds, if not thousands of times. It may not seem to have any connection to John McCrae and the fallen soldiers of which he wrote. But there will be reminders and tributes as NHL teams honor not only those who have served, but continue to honor those who are serving.

NHL coaches will wear poppies on their suit jackets to honor veterans Tuesday and several teams will hold special events. On Long Island, General Colin Powell, the retired chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be in attendance for the second-consecutive season as the Islanders play the Flyers.

In Detroit, the Red Wings will honor veterans prior to a rematch with the Penguins and fans will receive a Veterans Day lapel pin. The Los Angeles Kings will issue a commemorative Veterans Day postcard to fans attending their game against the Dallas Stars.

Tuesday is Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in the United States, a day set aside to recall and honor the sacrifices made by Canadian and American troops who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder in past conflicts like World War I and World War II and who are together once again in Afghanistan today.

The Poppy

NHL coaches will be wearing the poppy on their suit jackets Tuesday, an international symbol for those who died in war.

Prior to World War I, few poppies grew in Flanders. During the tremendous bombardments of that war the chalk soils became rich in lime from rubble, allowing the flower to thrive. When the war ended the lime was quickly adsorbed, and the poppy began to disappear again.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, the Canadian doctor who wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields,” made poignant use of the poppy in the poem and the scarlet poppy quickly became the symbol for soldiers who died in battle.

Three years later an American, Moina Michael, was working in a New York City YMCA canteen when she started wearing a poppy in memory of the millions who died on the battlefield. During a 1920 visit to the United States a French woman, Madame Guerin, learned of the custom. On her return to France she decided to use handmade poppies to raise money for the destitute children in war-torn areas of the country. In November 1921, the first poppies were distributed in Canada.

Thanks to the millions of Canadians who wear flowers each November, the little red plant has never died. And neither have Canadian’s memories for their countrymen who died in battle.

The poppy reminds us of the people who gave their lives for peace and freedom. The poppy reminds us of war and the great costs it brings society and that peace is something we should strive for beyond all things.

History shows there are many instances of NHL players putting down their sticks to pick up arms in defense of their countries.

Hall of Famer Johnny Bower, the popular Maple Leafs goalie, served for 3 years in World War II and was wounded twice. He returned and exchanged his rifle for a hockey stick and went on to 250-195-90 record, 3 Stanley Cups titles with the Leafs and 2 Vezina Trophies.

Joe Turner's story didn't end as happily. He got his chance in goal for the Detroit Red Wings against the Leafs on Feb. 5, 1942. He allowed 3 goals and came away with a tie in his first game. But later in 1942, he left the Wings to join the U.S. Marine Corps and was killed in action. A similar fate befell Red Garrett of the New York Rangers. He was serving in the Royal Canadian Navy in Nov. 25, 1944 when he was killed.

Those are just a few examples of bravery from NHL players.

Happily for hockey fans at the time, Bruins goalie Frankie Brimsek returned after serving in the U.S. Coast Guard and was a standout goalie. Many NHL stars of the day served with the Canadian Armed Forces and continued to play on military teams that helped keep morale high among the troops.

Imagine seeing the Royal Canadian Air Force team of the day that featured the Bruins' famous "Kraut Line" of Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer and Milt Schmidt. New York Rangers great Frank Boucher formed the Ottawa Commandos, an all-star army team that won the 1943 Allan Cup.

Conn Smythe, the legendary Maple Leafs owner, was a major with the Royal Canadian Artillery and was wounded in an air raid in 1944.

That is just the shortest of lists to acknowledge those who have served both countries through the years and who have made it possible for those of us living in North America today to enjoy freedoms unheard of in other places around the globe.

The link continues today. The brother of Brian Leetch, the retired Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, is a Green Beret in the U.S. Army and Ben Stafford, a former member of the Flyers, is now serving with the U.S. Marines in Iraq.

Author: Phil Coffey | NHL.com Sr. Editorial Director


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