Growing up as the son of a Marine, Matt Hendricks heard about the value of living in a free country from his father, Doug. The Washington Capitals forward listened and believed it.
But it wasn't until this month that it sunk in, when Hendricks spent a week visiting troops in Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Germany as part of a USO Tour. Talking about the less-than-stellar living conditions with Sgt. Major Bryan B. Battaglia, Hendricks got the point.
"He just looked at me, and he said, 'This shows you that freedom isn't free. There's a price to it.'" Hendricks recalled. "It's hard to understand that. You see stuff on CNN and video on the Internet and pictures and things like that, but it doesn't do it any respect until you're actually there and witnessing it firsthand to see how incredible it is."
Hendricks witnessed plenty during his weeklong trip alongside Washington Nationals pitchers Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, singer Kellie Pickler and comedian Iliza Shlesinger. They landed on and took off from an aircraft carrier and flew in Black Hawk helicopters.
"We got to do a lot of things that you could cross off your bucket list," Stammen said, "and then you also got to do a lot of things you felt like were a good service to the people overseas who can't be home for Christmas."
That struck a chord for Hendricks, even as an athlete who goes on road trips and has to be away from his wife, Kim, and young children, Gunner and Lennon, for long periods of time.
Getting to spend more time at home is a silver lining of the NHL lockout. Still, Kim Hendricks encouraged her husband to go on this trip, even though it meant going away just before the holidays.
"She thought it would be, obviously, a great opportunity and a life-changing opportunity," Hendricks said. "And she wants our kids to look back on this trip and learn from it, see the importance in doing things like this."
The Hendricks family is based in Minnesota, and Kim was the one who reached out to Defending the Blue Line, an organization that helps military families. It was through Defending the Blue Line that Matt Hendricks was asked to go on the USO Tour.
Naturally, one of his first calls was to his father.
"Like anybody does when you're looking for guidance, you seek the person that's given it to you throughout your life, and for me that was my dad. When this opportunity came, I asked him his take on it," Hendricks said. "He said, 'Other than raising your family, this might be one of the most important, life-changing things you can do.'"
As professional athletes, Hendricks, Detwiler and Stammen are used to signing autographs, but the ones they signed for military men and women meant more. They sat after USO shows for hours, signing for those in line.
"Just being able to talk to them, to shake everybody's hand and say thank you and try to pump up the troops, we had a number of people come up to us and tell us how much that meant," Detwiler said. "I don't picture myself as a celebrity at all. ... I felt like it was me just going over there saying thank you, but they were telling us, 'You don't know what it means to these guys to bring a little piece of America over here.' It kind of rejuvenates them."
Hendricks talked to an Army solider from Minnesota. Detwiler saw Mark Hankes, who he played summer baseball with during high school in St. Louis, and someone who had his mother as a teacher. Stammen ran into David Moss, who recognized the pitcher from a baseball camp he worked at in Ohio.
Moss was hospitalized at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
"I remembered him and I took a picture with him, and it was really one of the coolest things that we did, even though he was in rough shape just having had spinal surgery," Stammen said. "But it was kind of neat to see somebody that was familiar."
Familiar faces weren't many, but that wasn't the point. Hendricks said he met a number of hockey fans and those who knew him from back home in Minnesota, Washington and Denver, where he played for the Colorado Avalanche. A few gave him a hard time about the NHL lockout, but mostly they just asked when hockey was coming back.
Hendricks, Detwiler and Stammen didn't have the celebrity of Pickler, the humor of Shlesinger or the gravitas of Dempsey, but they spoke to troops and tried to boost morale and show their appreciation.
"We tried to paint it in a light where we had something in common with them as athletes, being on a team, sacrificing a little bit of our time for what we do," Stammen said. "Obviously, we couldn't come to grips with it being exactly how they were, but we did our best."
Finding a way to relate is hard in some ways and easy in others. Professional athletes admittedly have easier jobs, but Detwiler also observed that so many stationed overseas were in their early-to-mid 20s like him and Stammen.
Hendricks tried to reach out and give heartfelt speeches wherever the tour went, from the U.S.S. John C. Stennis off the coast of Bahrain, to U.S. Navy Central Command, the Transit Center at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, Bagram and Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Stuttgart and Landstuhl, Germany.
"I talked about the teamwork ... 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," Hendricks said. "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."
On the plane ride back to Washington, Hendricks, Detwiler and Stammen were able to reflect on what they had seen and the stories they heard.
"We all just kind of sat there and said, 'We just made a difference in the U.S. military," Detwiler said. "It's just kind of surreal to know that you made a difference somehow. That's something I never really pictured myself doing, making a difference like that."
• Staff writer Amanda Comak contributed to this report.
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