Wilson makes surprise visit to military families at UHL clinic

Tom Wilson, forward for the Washington Capitals, has been working with the United Heroes League and military families since 2019.

Wilson makes surprise visit to military families at UHL clinic

Feature photo: NHL.com/Capitals

Based on his previous experience, Shane Hudella was certain the latest United Heroes League event would be a memorable day for everyone involved and it most certainly was.

Hudella, the founder and president of the organization that assists the children of military service members with the opportunity to participate in sports, had a surprise guest on hand for the over 70 youth hockey players and families who gathered at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in mid-December.

The collective reaction of the group when Tom Wilson, forward for the Washington Capitals, skated onto the ice was, as Hudella recalled it, priceless.

“I am so lucky that I get to be Santa Claus every day,” said Hudella. “When you see the happiness and appreciation in those faces, it just means so much, not only to me but to those who support us, too.

Wilson, now in his 11th NHL season, quickly endeared himself to the young players. 

“Tom was just so interactive with the kids. He volunteered to go on the ice and give the kids some tips and talk with them. He was fantastic.”

“Tom is just such a class act and so interested in wanting to help,” said Hudella. “We’ve had a lot of the … so-called tough guys join us, the guys who are tough to play against, but who all have a heart of gold.”

Wilson, who will make his second career NHL-All Star appearance in February, has a long history of giving back.

Six years ago, Wilson unveiled his own initiative, Forty Three’s Friends, which provides tickets and a postgame meet and greet to kids connected with Make-a-Wish Mid-Atlantic.

In 2019, Wilson added UHL families to his program.

“It's just all about having a fun day with the kids,” Wilson told WashingtonCaps.com. “When I started the program, it was just kind of for kids that were having a tough time or wanting to look forward to something….”

“A lot of the time their families are doing way more than we ever even know. And their parents that are overseas are maybe having a tough time at home or whatever. It's just nice to show up for them and let them know that we're in their corner and we’ve got their back.”

Hudella, a former military member who was on active duty for the Minnesota Army National Guard and was deployed for Operation Desert Storm in 1990, is grateful to have aligned with Wilson.

“It can be tough for players at this time of year when the games become more meaningful and the push for the playoffs heats up, but Tom was fully invested. He gave us a ton of time and was happy to talk with the kids and the parents who were there.”

Hudella is also thankful for the contributions from all NHL players, past and present, who have dedicated their time and support the UHL, including the longstanding support from NHLPA Goals & Dreams through various equipment donations and the All-Star Hero initiative.

NHLPA Goals & Dreams has made several equipment donations to UHL families, including 25 sets this past August on behalf of NHLPA members Jason and Nick Robertson in conjunction with their two-day ice hockey clinic in Fort Liberty.

The annual All-Star Hero campaign sends a military personnel member and a guest to attend the NHL All-Star Game for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Since it was founded, the UHL has provided over $25 million worth of free sports equipment, hockey tickets, cash grants, sports camps and other experiences to military families across the U.S. and Canada.

“We’ve been around 15 years now and the NHLPA and the players have been with us every step of the way from day one. I get to live it and breathe it every day, to see those stories come to light. These are pro athletes who care about our troops and their families, and the time they spent was so worthwhile.

“They truly understand that being there gives the kids a positive role model to look up to and that means the world to me.”

Whether it is working with the NHLPA or through the players’ causes, Hudella continues to see a common thread in those who support UHL and military families.

“Each player is different, but each one is committed to doing what they can to bring a smile to everyone they meet and to show them how much they care. They are truly making a difference.”

Hudella shared the story of a heartfelt gift that he and Wilson received from a military member after the December hockey clinic.

“A Navy SEAL, who was there that day, gave a special coin to both Tom and me as a thank you. He happened to be available to come that day which is not often considering the tough things they are tasked with doing to watch his kid in the clinic.

“That was humbling, to get that coin from someone who has done the toughest work out there. It is impossible to put into words what it means to hear someone who sacrifices so much say the words thank you.”

For Hudella, it was a pleasant reminder of the UHL’s primary goal.

“We have been so incredibly lucky in our mission to help military kids and veterans get into the game or stay in hockey or help them out with equipment as a thank you for their service. It’s been amazing to work with Tom and so many other players, knowing how genuine they are in wanting to get behind our troops and help them.”