NHL All-Star Weekend a healing experience for first Canadian soldier honoured at event

NHL All-Star Weekend a healing experience for first Canadian soldier honoured at event

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Article / March 22, 2019 / Project number: 19-0082

By Corporal Cody Misner, 31 Canadian Brigade Group Public Affairs, with files from Army Public Affairs

San Jose, California — Master Corporal Stephen Giza, a Regular Force Canadian Army member and combat veteran, is now the first Canadian soldier to be honoured as part of the NHL All-Star Weekend, the latest edition of which took place January 25-27, 2019 in San Jose, California.

The NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) and the United Heroes League ((UHL), a United States non-profit veterans’ organization) have built a tradition of honouring soldiers at this annual event.

A member of 31 Service Battalion from London, Ontario, MCpl Giza was one of only four Veterans selected from across North America – and the only Canadian – to attend the four-day event.

He was allowed to bring a guest, and it was no coincidence that he chose his son Zachary Tucker, a hockey player and major NHL fan just like his Dad.

Currently working with his Battalion’s Technical Services Platoon, MCpl Giza has served 15 years with the Canadian Army. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 where he was wounded during two separate improvised explosive device attacks. MCpl Giza earned the Sacrifice Medal as well as the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command Commander’s Commendation. His latest deployment was in 2016 when he served six months in Kuwait.

A stealthy application yields a call from Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner

The UHL put out a call for applications for Veterans who would be recognized for their service by attending the All-Star Hero Experience at 2019 NHL All-Star Weekend in San Jose, California – with all expenses paid.

After his wife, Master Corporal (Retired) Lisa Tucker-Giza, submitted a written biography to the UHL, MCpl Giza unexpectedly received a personal call from none other than Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner, notifying him that he had been chosen to attend.

MCpl Giza was taken aback by the news, as he had no idea he’d been nominated.

“Once it sunk in that this was real and that I was going to be able to share the experience with my son, it was an emotional moment,” he recalled after returning from the event.

“My son and I love hockey and enjoy watching it on television. He has never been to an NHL game due to our busy schedule and the cost,” he explained.

Zachary Tucker plays left wing for the St. Thomas Junior Stars, a Major PeeWee team, and as his dad reports, “He is the speed skater of the team.”

The youngster is also a proud member of the 7 Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps, also in St. Thomas, Ontario.

Quality father-and-son time – with VIP treatment

“Once I realized that they were giving me an opportunity to give back to my family – who are the ones who take on the burdens of deployments as much as I do – I teared up,” said MCpl Giza.

He was thrilled to be able to able to bring his son with him. Family life is busy. Four kids, sports, jobs and school together make for hectic times, so he was excited to have some quality father-and-son time.

Couple that with the VIP treatment the duo received from the NHLPA and UHL, and the All-Star weekend provided a bonding opportunity like no other.

Son meets idol Sidney Crosby of the Penguins

“I’m a diehard Leafs fan, but my son is a Penguins fan.” He explained that he gave his son a small penguin toy as a toddler when he went overseas, and the boy’s connection to the team was formed. “So, as I was cheering for the Atlantic Division, he was rooting against me, cheering for the Metropolitan Division – who eventually won the game.”

For MCpl Giza, the memories and personal growth that were gained during this experience are something that he will carry with him forever. “The father in me was just overwhelmed watching my son meet his favorite hockey player and idol, Sidney Crosby,” he explained. “He was beaming with excitement and couldn’t believe it was happening.”

MCpl Giza thought back to how his time away from home, and how 15 years of service seemed to bring him to that very moment. “The soldier in me was blown away that my experiences within the military had led me to this opportunity,” he said.

The UHL brought together four families, many of which have endured the emotional and physical strains of coming home from war zones.

Event was a huge turning point on road to recovery from PTSD

“On a personal note, which I am so proud of, this is a huge turning point in my road to recovery from my injuries sustained in Afghanistan,” he explained. “After my deployment, I was diagnosed with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and have never been the same.”

MCpl Giza has had a hard time dealing with what most consider normal emotions, much like the other vets he had met on the UHL trip; but something was different this time.

“One of the many symptoms I experience is that my body and mind seem not to process excitement like before. For more than 10 years, it presented excitement and anticipation as anxiety and sometimes fear,” he explained.

But, “Since hearing I was selected, and through 10 years of doctors, medication, workshops, and education, for the first time I was excited about what was happening and processed it as a positive feeling.”

It seems the trip was a success on many levels. “I have a long way to go, but to me this was huge. Something that I had accepted I may never feel again had returned.”

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