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Linemates for life

03/15/2019, 12:15pm CDT
By David Hlavac

How hockey and service continue to inspire lifelong friends


Jeff Dwyer (below left) and Adam Elliott first played together as Coon Rapids Squirts in 1976. They are pictured above in the back row, second and first on the right.

The healing power of hockey is strong in the bold north. For Jeff Dwyer, co-founder of the Duluth Warriors, a Minnesota Warriors hockey organization team in northern Minnesota, unity on the ice recalls the brotherhood of battle and the fellowship of men and women united for a cause. As a U.S. military veteran who joined the Navy Seabees in 1991 and served in the Invasion Force of Iraq in 2003, Dwyer has learned the importance of teamwork first-hand, both on the battlefield and on the ice. Together with his lifelong friend and 10-season, three-sport teammate growing up, Adam Elliott, Jeff has put his personal hockey brotherhood to work, engaging dozens of Minnesota military veterans and their hockey-playing to join together on a team unlike any other. 

Adam and Jeff forged their bonds on the ice more than 40 years ago, a friendship that has remained strong today thanks to a shared respect for veterans and the hockey traditions of Minnesota. These boisterous linemates first played together as Squirts in 1976 and after coming up through the youth ranks, they joined each other in summertime pick-up games on the streets of Coon Rapids. As the self-described, perennial “misfits” of the team grew closer, Adam and Jeff spent more time together off the ice. During the summer after their sophomore year of high school, the pair embarked on a cross-Minnesota bicycle trek, from Coon Rapids to Lake Vermillion and on to Ely, ending up at a family residence on the North Shore of Lake Superior – more than 500 miles. 

Although they lived in different neighborhoods, the two boys would spend weeks at a time staying at each other’s houses year-round, and their parents became surrogate parents. In addition to hockey, Jeff and Adam were also teammates on the 1983 state championship football team in Coon Rapids, and conference champions on the Coon Rapids’ golf team. Both on and off the ice, Adam and Jeff found friendship and fraternity with teammates, demonstrating how a shared work ethic and devotion to making goals (literally and figuratively) can yield personal and professional success. 

After graduating high school, Adam and Jeff took divergent paths. Yet hockey remained a common bond. At Minnesota State University Mankato, Jeff played rugby and skated in a men’s intramural hockey league, while Adam played football and joined the St. Olaf College hockey team, where he played for legendary coach Whitey Aus. While Jeff and Adam were in college, they even played together in a men’s recreational league in Mankato with three other former Coon Rapids’ teammates. The brotherhood of hockey endured distance, competing priorities and contrasting paths to adulthood. 

Jeff left college after a couple of years and worked as a lumberjack and railroad brakeman/switchman before moving to California to help with clean-up efforts following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Then, in 1991, Jeff enlisted in the U.S. Navy, while Adam pursued graduate studies at Penn State University. As part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Jeff and his United States Naval Construction Battalion (better known as the Seabees) constructed bridges and infrastructure for the U.S. Marines liberating Iraq. 

While Jeff was serving in the Navy, Adam was a frequent pen pal, and as Jeff moved from place to place – from Africa to Guam and everywhere in-between – the long-distance friendship endured. Unfortunately, like more than 20 percent of returning Iraq war veterans, Jeff returned home yearning for the camaraderie and esprit de corps, while also re-living the difficult experiences of nearly three years serving in combat theaters. The “can do” optimism of the Seabees seemed increasingly difficult to uphold. 

As Jeff coped with an unpredictable adjustment to civilian life, he once again found relief on the ice with a new band of brothers – the Minnesota Warriors hockey club, a program that provides both a recreational and therapeutic outlet for disabled U.S. Armed Forces veterans. Created in partnership with the USA Disabled Hockey Program, the Minnesota Warriors include veterans with service-connected wounds or injuries, with play adapted to the abilities of all participating players. 

In the spring of 2016, Jeff played with the Twin Cities Metro Warriors and won a national title. Jeff wanted to experience the same camaraderie closer to his home in Silver Bay on Lake Superior’s North Shore. The Duluth Warriors were born in the fall of 2016, thanks to the Minnesota Warriors, fellow veterans and mentors who lead the Warriors organization – Chris Price, Tim Loney, Barry Ford and Andy Qualy.

Meanwhile, Adam and Jeff spoke nearly every week as both kept busy coaching youth hockey. Adam and Jeff had each spent several years coaching young skaters – both boys and girls – and both friends reached the state tournament with their 12U and 15U teams. They also got to celebrate together with their respective youth teams at a hockey camp in Silver Bay. Once again, the hockey brotherhood had brought these friends together as they shared their love of the game with a new generation. Adam had started his own company – ID Insight – in 2003, but he prioritized his friendship with Jeff and always found time for hockey. 

When the newly-formed Duluth Warriors hit the ice in 2016, Jeff asked his friend if Adam’s company – a Minneapolis-based software firm helping financial institutions fight fraud – would be interested in sponsoring the team, which donates all of its ticket sales to veterans’ charities. After a lifetime of friendship, Adam couldn’t think of a better way to pay tribute to the brotherhood of hockey, and the idea of hockey helping veterans heal was especially appealing to Adam. His father, grandfathers, uncles and brothers all served in the U.S. armed forces. Starting with the 2018 season, ID Insight is one of the team’s corporate sponsors. 

The Warriors are more than a team – they play hockey with a purpose. Teammates go to extraordinary lengths to help each other and forge even stronger bonds off the ice. Some players have a history of high-level play, from the collegiate and junior hockey ranks. Others are complete novices for whom the game is a window of opportunity to recapture the fraternity of the battlefield in a supportive setting. 

For Adam and Jeff, hockey has always been more than just a game. As kids, the objectives were have fun, work hard and get better. Today, the Duluth Warriors are still working hard and getting better, but success isn’t as tangible as a trophy at season’s end. For the Warriors, it’s a celebration of health, life, family and hockey fellowship with their veteran brothers and sisters.

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