Matt Hendricks signed a lot of autographs, probably more than he has during his NHL career. It didn’t matter that he sat for hours signing because he was doing so for U.S. military members stationed overseas.
The Washington Capitals forward was part of a week-long USO Tour along with Nationals pitchers Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, singer Kellie Pickler and comedian Iliza Shlesinger. The group saw troops in Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Germany.
What surprised Hendricks was just how many people knew of him and the Caps.
“Initially going into it I didn’t know how much of an effect I could have on soldiers,” Hendricks said. “You don’t look at yourself as somebody on that type of a totem pole when you think of the people that go over there, such as big rock and roll stars, big country music stars, things like that. And to be able to go over there and see an effect and see a change in their mood and kind of bring smiles to their faces, it was a great feeling.”
Hendricks is involved with Defending the Blue Line, a Minnesota-based charity that aids military families. When he got the call to go on a USO Tour, he was eager and his wife, Kim, was more than supportive. One week away from home, even around the holidays, was going to be worth it.
Hendricks spoke to countless troops, hearing their stories and trying to give heartfelt speeches during USO shows.
“I talked about the teamwork, talked about how important it was for going out and playing well, when I’m playing with confidence I know the guy next to me is doing his job,” Hendricks said. “Obviously it goes beyond the players, it goes on to the trainers and the guys that sharpen your skates and take care of your laundry. Without those guys, the team wouldn’t work. And I wanted to make that hit home with the troops because if you’re digging holes in the dirt or you’re helping build places to live and things like that on the bases, the other people out there doing other types of jobs aren’t going to be able to succeed without them.”
Of course, Hendricks talked a little bit about the lockout with some hockey fans.
“There was a lot of questions about: When are we going to get playing? But they didn’t drill me too hard on those questions,” he said. “They were more just giving me a little crap and stuff. They were very concerned that they want to see hockey. They definitely miss watching games and stuff on the Armed Forces Network.”
After refueling in Ireland, Hendricks and the group visited the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis off the coast of Bahrain and then U.S. Navy Central Command in Manama, Bahrain. From there, they saw folks at the Transit Center at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, the entry and exit point for those going to Afghanistan from the north. There were two stops in Afghanistan, in Bagram and Kandahar, and then two more in Germany, in Stuttgart and then at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
All along the way, Hendricks, Stammen, Detwiler, Dempsey, Pickler and Shlesinger entertained the troops and tried to boost morale. One way was signing autographs and plenty of them.
“There had to be days with our meet-and-greets, and we sat around for hours after shows signing an autograph for everyone who wanted, for anybody and everybody who wanted it,” said Hendricks, who returned home to Minnesota on Monday night. “So it had to be well into the 3,000s [some days].”
It was the first USO Tour experience for Hendricks, whose father, Doug, is a former Marine.
“The entire trip was just outstanding,” Matt Hendricks said. “We were busy. We didn’t sleep much. It was a lot of work. But it was definitely worth it.”
Read more about Hendricks’ USO Tour experience in The Washington Times on Christmas Day.
Check out the map of where Hendricks and Co. went during this USO Tour:
View Matt Hendricks’ USO Tour in a larger map