San Diego Ice Arena placing heavy focus on supporting military members, families
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If you have ever seen the movie “Top Gun,” or you’re looking forward to the sequel coming in 2020, you know that San Diego is a military town.
With bases representing nearly all branches of the United States Armed Forces spread out throughout San Diego County, it is one of the area’s biggest industries and employs a large percentage of the city and county’s population.
So when Craig Sterling relocated to the city more than a decade ago and eventually took over the top job at San Diego Ice Arena, it was a no-brainer that the rink’s many programs should cater to military members and their families.
Located just a slap shot from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and within a short drive of Naval Air Station North Island and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, among a number of other bases, SDIA attracts plenty of youth and adult players with ties to the military, and Sterling and his team do everything they can to make them feel at home.
“There are so many military families that move to San Diego, and maybe they’re from a hockey hotbed like Chicago or Minnesota,” Sterling said. “They move here, and they don’t really know anyone. They get transferred here, and their kids are sad that they have to leave their friends, so we try to reach out to all the local bases and invite the people stationed at those bases to come out and be a part of our hockey family here.”
SDIA’s adult league features four teams out of 21 in the league made up entirely of military members, veterans and first responders. The rink has 20 youth teams between in-house and the SDIA Oiler program that call it home this season, and Sterling estimates that approximately 20 percent of the players are children of military members and first responders.
Whether it’s at the youth or adult levels, there are always some experienced players looking for a place to enjoy the game they love and meet new people, and there are also plenty of kids and adults who are new to hockey. At all levels, getting out on the ice helps provide an athletic and social outlet for military families, who often are relocated every few years.
“Our biggest goal is to get military families involved with hockey and make them feel like they’re part of something,” Sterling said. “We have always been very family-oriented with everything we do at SDIA.”
In addition to the outreach he does to bases, he estimates he gets 10-15 emails a week from military members inquiring about playing hockey. Sterling offers military families free skating passes, and it often isn’t long before they become regulars at the rink and become part of the teams. The rink puts on a couple charity games every year amongst the military and first responder teams, and the games typically draw big crowds of supporters rooting on their branch of the service, the police or firefighters.
Practice time for military teams is always free, and league fees are consistently low. Some families also receive sponsorships from organizations such as Defending the Blue Line.
Sterling credited Joel Henderson, a veteran of nearly 40 years in the San Diego hockey community, for his efforts with SDIA’s military offerings. A longtime former president of the SDIA Oilers, he now serves as Sterling’s right-hand man on everything happening at the rink.
“Families have always come first at our rink, which I don’t think is always the case at other rinks,” Henderson said. “And, of course, what we found was that there were a lot of military families in our area. Craig decided that we needed to support the military families because they were such a large part of our community, and we all supported that idea.”
When Henderson first started at what is now SDIA, there was very little hockey available in the San Diego area. Over the last 40 years, the sport has grown by leaps and bounds, much to Henderson’s delight. The availability of the sport has naturally extended to military families.
“It’s a tremendous community service that Craig is providing,” Henderson said. “What he has done is amazing. He put this thing together from scratch and runs it so well. Whenever we have one of the military charity games, we fill up the stands and there’s a ton of energy and excitement.”
Christopher Lane, the president of the Guardians hockey program, which has two teams of adult military members playing regularly at SDIA, is the unofficial military liaison for SDIA. The Guardians are a new program as of last winter, and Lane – a reservist communications officer, First Lieutenant in the Marine Corps based at Camp Pendleton – has relished the opportunity to provide opportunities for his colleagues to play hockey.
“There are so many military bases and so many law-enforcement members in San Diego and all throughout Southern California, and we wanted to start something that was truly inclusive for them,” Lane said.
Surprisingly, despite growing up outside Boston, Lane never played hockey on an organized team until he came to SDIA. He has always enjoyed the game and wanted to invest his time and effort into something that helps others. He also credited members of the Guardians board of directors for the time and effort they put toward the program, singling out Adrian Lonick, Jason Culligan and Russell Allan.
“I felt like there was a need to offer something like this to give back,” he said. “We wanted them to have an opportunity to get to know a group of people and give them something constructive to do with their time off. There are a lot of people who are looking for something to call their own and something to be invested in.”
Lane said the benefits of hockey are plentiful for military members and first responders, and each individual takes something different from the experience.
“I wanted to find an outlet for people who were struggling with finding a sense of community and looking to connect with other people,” Lane said. “Hockey is a great outlet for that because it’s competitive and physical, and guys can just get out on the ice and forget about everything else happening in their lives. It’s really a great feeling.”
Sterling relishes the opportunity to serve the military members who serve our country every day. There’s an open-door policy at the rink, whether that means providing teams for those stationed locally or players who drive in from other bases hundreds of miles away and drop in on open skates.
“San Diego is one of the biggest military towns in the country, and I really do love meeting military members and their families just to hear the stories of all the places they have been and the things they have done,” Sterling said. “And it’s such a great feeling when you make bonds with these kids who have moved around so much and you see them making friends with their teammates.”
— Greg Ball
(Jan. 9, 2020)