Scattered amongst a sea of blue and white Blue Jackets jerseys at Nationwide Arena tonight were men and women dressed in a different kind of uniform. Members of the military received complimentary tickets to the game and participated in a special pre-game ceremony as part of the Blue Jackets’ annual Military Appreciation Night.
As fans arrived to get ready for the drop of the puck between the Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, they were greeted with a cheerful array of music performed by the 338th United States Army Reserve Command Band. The band also performed the National Anthem as soldiers from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) unfurled a giant American flag on the ice.
Sergeant First Class Michael Eaton has been a member of the USARC for 17 years as a trumpet player and has participated in Military Appreciation Night at Nationwide Arena for six years. Tonight was the first time that he got to play the National Anthem on the ice during the pre-game ceremony, and he said the atmosphere was “electric.”
“I know that the Blue Jackets are known for their crowd experience, but it was quite an experience for us to stand down there and see all of the lights and hear the crowd,” Eaton said.
He said the game makes for a great stage, even if it is a little atypical from other venues they play at, which can range from homecoming ceremonies to celebrations for veterans.
“I appreciate playing here because this is not the type of venue you generally think of for a military band,” he said, adding that the fans here in Columbus are always very appreciative.
“They come in intending to go straight to their seats, and they end up standing and listening for 20-30 minutes.”
Executive Officer Ron Kuntz, leader of the 338th USARC Band, said that several fans approached the group to thank them – a sentiment that he said is humbling. One couple even said they had a son serving in Korea as a member of the 8th Army Band.
“You always seem to be making these connections with the people,” Kuntz said. “One of the rewards of being in this group is playing for many different types of groups. People really show respect and appreciation for the uniform.”
Colonel Brad Hayworth is based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton and has attended three games at Nationwide Arena so far. However, tonight’s experience was the first time he got to hoist the flag at center ice along with roughly 20 members from NASIC. Like Kuntz, Col. Hayworth said Columbus fans were very appreciative of their presence at tonight’s game.
“It’s very much appreciated, and I will tell you, in general, my experience since I got here in Ohio has been very military-friendly, whether it was in the Columbus area or back in the Dayton area,” he said.
Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Col. Hayworth has served oversees, including rotations in Korea, Belgium, and Iraq shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003. He came to Ohio in 2011 and immediately connected with the community.
“Ohio has a great industrial base in terms of supporting the military,” he said.
While the Blue Jackets may not be included in that industrial base, Col. Hayworth said that he always loves when he has the opportunity to come to games at Nationwide Arena. He loved to watch hockey as a kid, but admitted that he lost touch with the game when he served oversees – a small sacrifice to make in order to serve his country.
Tonight’s game offered fans and members of the military the chance to relax and have fun while celebrating the service and sacrifice of true heroes, and despite the final score, it was a winning combination.
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