A newly-created hockey league hopes to give Tampa Bay area veterans skate time, camaraderie for free

TAMPA, Fla. - Even though an NHL lock out is keeping the Tampa Bay Lightning out of the Forum, their ice and jerseys are still getting some use.

One of the men on that ice Wednesday, however, just returned from much warmer temperatures.

"It's like 120 degrees but it's a dry heat," explained US Army National Guard Spc. Jim Rathbone. "It's like you're holding a blow dryer to your face."

Rathbone spent more than a year in Kuwait, serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He wanted to celebrate his return to the US with his favorite sport, but like many other vets, didn't have the money.

Hockey leagues can cost $1,000 per season.

So, he and fellow veteran, Andy Boutilier, created the Veterans Hockey League.

The brand new league of 15 players practiced on the Forum ice Wednesday morning. The Lightning also donated their practice jerseys.

"This is a great opportunity for us to expand on giving back to the community," said Dave Andreychuk, VP of Fan and Business Development for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Many of the veterans called Wednesday's practice a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"They've never been in the Lightning's locker room," said Boutilier, now the league's president. "They've never been on this ice."

Except, the fun is about to become a lot more common, because the Lightning plans to allow the men to skate even after the lock out ends.

"They made a decision to say, 'If I'm called, I'm willing to put my life at risk," Boutilier said. "They've earned the right to be here."

Though the league has plans to grow large enough for a competitive season, they say the point isn't about winning. It's about playing the game together.

"You have a competitive nature about you.  If you're going to be in the military, you have to be competitive anyway," Rathbone said.  "Nobody knows what somebody's going through in the military like another veteran."

The league hopes to expand across the country to allow veterans the chance to play an expensive sport for free. They're in need of donations for equipment, jerseys, and ice time.

To help, send checks to:

Veterans Hockey League, Inc
P.O. Box 736
Mango, Florida 33550

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