A 200-mile hike and three hockey matches a day. It’s business as usual for the Hockey for Heroes crew as they take on their biggest challenge to date – Operation Stretcher – which involves carrying a man on a stretcher from the National Hockey Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, to the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, host of the Men's Hero Hockey World League Semi-Final in June.
Hockey for Heroes came into existence in 2012, when a squad was formed comprising a number of military and ex-military personnel who all rally for the cause. The movement is an off-shoot of charity 'Help for Heroes' who raise money to help injured and fallen military personnel. The funds raised help run a series of country-wide recovery centres, all focused heavily on the role sport can play.
Managing Director is Gary Ryder and he explains how the charity started life: “Hockey for Heroes all started when, as two ex-army soldiers, we [with co-founder Joel Forrester] decided we should combine our love for hockey with a military past we will never forget. Our inspiration is the fantastic work that Help for Heroes continually do for our injured service men and women. This is our way of giving something back."
Help for Heroes has been involved with Sports Recovery since 2008 and in the past year alone have put on 350 events across 50 different sports enabling more than 2,100 wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans to take part in adaptive sports.
Using hockey as the vehicle for their work, the Hockey for Heroes team, which currently comprises 26 players from 20 different clubs, works to raise funds for Help for Heroes. Their challenges are always a mixture of exceptional physical exertion combined with playing hockey.
In 2013, the squad took on an inaugural tour, which encompassed 26 matches in seven days; in 2014 they took part in a Tough Mudder adventure race, then ran up Mount Snowdon before playing two hockey matches; in 2015 they completed the Hockey for Heroes Tour, which saw them play 33 matches in 10 days, while completing the three peaks challenge [climbing the three highest peaks in the UK, Snowdon (Wales), Ben Nevis (Scotland) and Scafell Pike (England)].
This year's challenge is even bigger. Operation Stretcher commenced on Friday May 26 at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff, Wales and the first game will be against a Welsh XI. Over the next 10 days, the squad will walk 20 miles a day, carrying the stretcher, and play a total of 30 matches along the way against a variety of opposition. They will finish with three matches against two London clubs and a GB veterans team at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre on 4 June.
Great Britain and England men’s team manager Andy Halliday is an ambassador and ardent supporter of the charity. He said: “I am going to be dribbling a hockey ball all the way behind the men carrying the stretcher. We are raising much-needed funds for armed service personnel who need the help now more than ever.”
The national team’s involvement with Hockey for Heroes began when England sported the logo on their shirts at the Unibet European Championships in August 2015. The idea was first mooted by Halliday. "I was a member of the police force for 15 years," he explains. "I have an affinity with and a huge admiration for these guys who give their all to serve their country.”
George Pinner, the Great Britain goalkeeper and one of three newly appointed England captains, an ambassador to the Hockey for Heroes movement, added: “These guys are really something, we know we sacrifice a lot to be hockey players, so we understand a little of what they go through, but they are truly inspirational."
Those views are welcomed by Ryder who said: “We hope the link between Hockey for Heroes and the GB and England hockey team is a long one. Our aim is to support our charity but it's also to promote hockey as a sport. We're extremely proud to see our logo on the national shirt and we know the players are proud to wear it.
“The support overall, in clubs as well as with the national team, has been overwhelming, it's fantastic to see so many people willing to give up there time to support, donate and come to events. The support from the hockey family is amazing.”
For more information about Hockey for Heroes, visit their official website and Facebook Page.