GROTON -- When the Groton-Dunstable Crusaders' hockey team broke the huddle in front of their goal at the beginning of Wednesday night's game with Shrewsbury, they hollered in unison "hoorah" as a tribute to the brave men and women who have served this country. Wednesday was about much more than a game, but a reminder of the sacrifice made by our soldiers from the past and the present.
Prior to the game, the United States Marine Corps Color guard presented the flag, and veterans in attendance were asked to rise and be recognized. Military appreciation night was started two years ago in memory of Crusader alumnus Billy Woitowicz, a Silver-Star decorated Marine Corps. Veteran who was killed in the line of duty while stationed in Afghanistan.
"Brian Payne, our previous coach, started Military Night last year," said Groton-Dunstable booster Jaqueline Maguire. "He talked to the boys about it, and he really thought it would be nice to recognize Billy's sacrifice. Groton-Dunstable being such a sheltered community, we really haven't had a fallen hero who was so young. It was a big deal for the kids at the school, and they lined the driveway outside the school when Billy was brought home."
First-year head coach Phil Rowley loved the idea of honoring soldiers of the past and present, which prompted the new tradition to continue on.
All the proceeds raised for military night were donated to the Woitowicz scholarship fund at the high school, but this year the high school decided to go in a different direction.
Crusaders' Athletics Director Michael McCaffrey is a University of New Hampshire graduate and was made aware of a grassroots campaign called "Operation Hat Trick" that was started at UNH. UNH Kinesiology professor Steve Hardy lost his son, Nate, a special operations Naval officer, and the program is dedicated in his and his best friend Mike Koch's memory.
The two Seals put their life on the line together, and they are laid to rest next to one another at Arlington National Cemetery. Operation Hat Trick was designed to raise money for veterans returning home from war with burns, scars and various head injuries.
The OHT website points to UNH senior associate athletic director Dot Sheehan as the first to adopt the idea after hearing on the radio that soldiers feel almost normal when they return if they had a hat.
Maguire made mention of how the grassroots campaign has really brought the two communities together, and has provided more well deserved attention for those who have served their country.
"It is nice to see the boys take something to heart, and take the tragedy and sorrow and turn it into something positive," said Maguire. "When you see tons of neighbors and friends who are back from service, and who come that night, and take pride in being there, it's really awesome."
The Crusaders raised money a couple years ago for camouflage jerseys, which picture a waving American flag across the back waist. On the name plate, there is no individual name, but in all capitals, "never forget." Last year's hockey season was dedicated in the memory of Woitowicz, and when the Crusaders had their state championship rings designed, a flag with the words "never forget" was included in the design.
"Last year, with the shock when Billy was killed in action, and we thought it was right for someone to do something," said Crusaders captain Allan Haynes. "There was talk of a memorial people were going to build for him, but there wasn't any funding. I think that Adam and I thought that it was a great idea to do something, and we thought what a great cause so near and dear to everyone's heart."
With the help of parents and the community, Groton-Dunstable raised $1,100 in proceeds to support Operation Hat Trick last Wednesday. Typically hats with the school's logo are sold to raise proceeds, but with baked goods and other concessions, the Crusaders boosters still managed to make a difference in a returning veteran's life.