The story of the Michigan UP Veterans Hockey Club (MUPVHC) is just one of those stories you need to hear from time to time. It’ll remind you that we do still live in a world where community members look after one another and where seemingly simple acts of generosity can make a huge impact on complex problems. We got the chance to talk with veterans Sergeant First Class Jon French and Chief Warrant Officer Tom Glass about how the team got its start.
In 2019, Jon got a call from an old classmate and fellow veteran, Jason Gomez. Jason is on the Saginaw Spirit Warriors and was wondering if any veterans in the UP played hockey. This question of course gave Jon a chuckle. When Jon confirmed they had enough for a team, Jason officially challenged them to a series of home games. It was appropriately dubbed the ‘Battle of the Bridge’. Senator Ken Horn and Senator Ed McBroom even had a bet on it, involving a Frankenmuth chicken dinner and a pasty.
At the time, Jon’s departure from the military was still recent. He was medically discharged in 2018 after he was struck in the chest with an RPG. One of the results of his injuries was a brand new artificial right elbow. His surgeon was sure that it would prevent him from playing hockey ever again, but yet here he is, two National Championships later. Meanwhile, Tom had served in every branch but the Navy, and as a police officer. With their combined years of service and network, Jon and Tom were able to put a team together comprised of other veterans. They’ve helped veterans who may not have been able to play otherwise because they suffered from alcoholism and gout in their legs and feet. But being a part of MUPVHC was enough for those veterans to stop drinking. The team has been a huge motivation, and these members are still alcohol-free.
Once the team was formed, they were able to get sponsors for everything from jerseys to socks. MUPVHC won the first game in Saginaw. But most importantly it was a chance for veterans to get together that had never met before and share their stories.
When the Saginaw Spirit Warriors came up to the UP, the city of Houghton pulled out all the stops for their team. Local transit buses went to pick up veterans so they could watch the game, Michigan Tech sent their ROTC cadets in to take care of the teams and whatever they needed, and the MI Tech pep band even joined in. There was a line outside of the Dee Stadium door all the way to the street. Every penny that was raised was poured back into veterans and the community that made this first home game such a hit.
The community embraced them so well that they decided it should be a full-time team. The overwhelming support had more than exceeded any expectations they had. Although the pandemic put a hold on it, MUPVHC followed through on its plans and set out to serve the community. The team traveled down to Detroit in October of 2022 to compete in the National Championship.
Jon laughed as he remembered arriving dressed in jeans, flannels, and mismatched gear in general. What they found was all the other teams wearing matching warm ups, jackets, duffel bags, and looking slightly more professional “and here we are, just a bunch of yoopers showing up”. Although they were a little intimidated, they went out, played their hockey, and ended up winning the whole thing.
Shortly after the championship, when they had a few moments to sit down in the locker room, the team got to talking about how it would be nice to at least have some matching jackets. There was a consensus that they didn’t want to look like everyone else, wearing the same brands but just with different colors. Somebody mentioned it would be nice to have a more substantial, warm jacket that they could wear outside of hockey and represent the team. Which of course brought the conversation to Stormy Kromer and the possibility of a custom coat.
“We assumed the chances of that happening were slim to none.” Still, Jon figured you never really know until you ask, so he shot us an email. Sure enough, when he woke up the next morning, our reply was waiting in his inbox. Tom was the one who took care of the design process with us, and choosing The Mackinaw Coat was an easy decision, “When you think of a Stormy Kromer Jacket, that’s what you think of.” Tom wanted a black jacket so the team’s gold logo could really stand out. We had never done the Mackinaw in black, but we made it happen.
Tom and Jon met with us and were able to take a factory tour where they met the folks who would be crafting their coats. When everything was finalized, we were prepared to mail them up, but the team paid us a personal visit. Jon attested that getting the opportunity to meet all the people who made the jackets and helped them represent the UP was nothing short of an emotional experience. To see them again afterward was a full-circle moment. To Tom, it was special to see a product made by yoopers for yoopers, “everybody that touched that jacket is from the U.P.”
We were honored that this meant so much to the team and that they trusted us with this project. It was also a unique process for all of us at Stormy Kromer. It’s not every day we get to create fully customized pieces, in such a collaborative manner, and get to know the people it’s going to along the way. To create these coats alone was an honor, but to be able to hand them directly to these veterans and see what it meant to them was truly remarkable.
For Jon, Tom, and the entire team, starting this journey in 2019 has created a huge impact on so many levels. Jon discussed what it really means. “It’s way more than just hockey. It’s about perseverance, resilience, community support, and it’s about continued service.” Creating MUPVHC has allowed the players to have a sense of purpose that some of them had lost after leaving the service. Giving back to other veterans and junior hockey has given them such a reward.
They gained back more than purpose when they started competing. When veterans leave, the thing they miss most is the comradery. Only veterans can understand what service members have gone through, and it creates an incredible outlet when they get together for games and tournaments. When MUPVHC traveled to Colorado for the 2023 Championship, this is something that Keweenaw Brewing Company understood. They donated a dozen cases of beer so that the team could sit down with their military brothers and sisters after the games and have a beer together. It’s a lot more than just a beer. It’s a chance to network and talk about what nobody else fully understands.
Everything they needed from a van to travel snacks for the road was provided to them by the community and sponsors. Jon attributed their success to the support of their state, “It takes a U.P to put together a team like this with so much sisu”, Both veterans are very proud and humbled to be able to represent the U.P. Sponsors of MUPVHC do achieve more than they’ll ever know. Right now, 22 veterans a day die by suicide, but Tom recognizes the difference MUPVHC makes. “Our guys aren’t gonna be one of the 22 that day because they have a practice tomorrow, or a tournament next month. Our sponsors will never know how many lives they’re saving, but what they do is incredibly powerful”.
Working with this group of Veterans and having a hand in everything they represent has been an unforgettable experience for Stormy Kromer. We’ve always been proud to call the U.P home and the Michigan UP Veterans Hockey Club is precisely why.