Cardiff to London – 200 miles. For most of us that would be a straight forward drive along the M4 taking around 3 hours. Or even a train journey of around two. How about walking it… Crazy right?
Let’s go back a year….. A telephone conversation between CEO’s Joel Forrester & Gary Ryder, founders of the now famous Hockey for Heroes. A support charity of Help for Heroes who use Hockey as their sport to help. The Hockey for Heroes team, founded in 2012, work to raise funds by encompassing a mixture of exceptional physical exertion combined with their love of hockey. Joel had been looking at the Help for Heroes logo (two soldiers carrying a wounded colleague on a stretcher), and wondered whether it was something that they could replicate in real life, he just needs to convince Gary of his ideas. Lucky for Joel, Gary didn’t need convincing, jumping straight onboard and day 1 of over a year of planning had now commenced.
Since 2012 Hockey for Heroes have gone from strength to strength culminating in the National hockey team wearing playing shirts emblazoned with the charity logo for the European Championships. CEO Gary Ryder said at the time “To see where Hockey for Heroes has gone, from four years ago being an idea between a few friends to today, when the England team will compete with our logo on their shirts is absolutely incredible. It’s great to have England Hockey’s support and it just doesn’t get any bigger than having you own national team behind you.”
Hockey for Heroes now had the backing of the nation and the whole of the “hockey family” across the world — something that they would need as they lay foundations for their next challenge.
Within the ranks of the Hockey for Heroes, Royal Marine Warrant Officer Shane Lovett’s son, Royal Marine Dominic ‘Dom’ Lovett, who was injured during a training exercise in Norway.
Based in Stonehouse as a radio signaller, the Westcountry Commando joined the elite fighting force following in the steps of his father. In 2008 the Plymouth commando and his comrades deployed to Norway on an Arctic warfare training exercise. After successfully completing the final test he and his friends went out to celebrate.
That night his life changed forever. He said: “I was in Norway on a training exercise and after passing my cold weather warfare course we all went out and celebrated. I celebrated a bit too much and jumped head first into the snow. But the snow was only a metre deep, it was solid ice underneath” Dom sustained major spinal injuries and was paralysed from the neck down.
Joel’s vision of replicating the H4H badge just took a step closer. Joel and Gary with Dom on the stretcher. Job done? No, nothing these guys do could be that easy….
As when most friends get together, things evolve and get bigger and bigger. Joel’s idea of replicating the H4H logo evolved into a full stretcher carry from Cardiff to London, some 200 miles on foot across a multitude of terrain. Now add in 30 matches of hockey, that’s some 35 hours of hockey to be played against various hockey clubs on route culminating at Marlow Hockey Club in Buckinghamshire, all within a timescale of 10 days.
30 Hockey Matches
Joel and Gary along with Royal Marine Warrant Officer Shane Lovett and Great Britain Hockey Team Manager Andy Halliday now had the task of planning the Operation. A year of meetings and presentations, pathfinding and route mapping commenced.
The easiest part of the planning was the hockey. The Hockey for Heroes squad had no end of offers of opposition and hockey clubs willing to host the team during what would be for some, the biggest challenge of their lives.
All 44 members of the Hockey for Heroes squad embarked on their own fundraising and training to prepare for the the 10 days that lie ahead. Speaking to Goalkeeper James Stock before the event he said “I am a little nervous, possibly even scared of what we are about to do but it’s the overwhelming feeling of excitement and pride that is driving me on”.
‘’We are about to embark on this 10 day objective, we feel prepared and ready to take this challenge head on. The planning and preparation has gone fantastically well and the squad are ready to make #OpStretcher a huge success.” Says Joel Forrester, Hockey for Heroes CEO.
“We’re under no illusion, everyone who embarks on #OpStretcher will go through highs and lows at some point. There will be times when we are tired, hurting, hungry and emotional but as a squad we look after each other and we will triumph. We’re all on the same path, the same mission and the same objective, together. This is what makes what we do so special, we experience it all as a unit and get through it tighter and more determined than ever before.
There will be times we need to grit our teeth, lift our heads, fight through and come out with a smile. This is going to be a massive test, a bit like life it doesn’t come with a safety catch. We’ve just got to battle through and always remember why we are pushing ourselves to our limits” Joel continued.
26th May 2017, Day 1 of OpStretcher. Sofia Gardens, Cardiff. The team take to the pitch for their first of 30 matches. After a tough match against a Welsh international select team , the H4H team buyoyed with huge support set off on the journey towards London being hosted on route by the very welcoming clubs below.
26th May – Sofia Gardens and Gwent HC
27th May – Gloucester City HC, Plock Court pitch
28th May – Chippenham HC
29th May – Royal Wootton Bassett HC, RWB Academy
30th May – Newbury HC
31st May – Sonning HC
1st June – Amersham and Chalfont, Amersham and Wycombe College
2nd June – St Albans HC, Oaklands College
3rd June – Old Loughtonians HC
4th June – Marlow HC Family Fun Day
Day 4 was the day that hit the team the hardest. Royal Wootton Bassett, a town now famous for its repatriation ceremonies. The last and 167th repatriation through Wootton Bassett took place on 18 August 2011 when the body of 24-year-old Lt Daniel Clack, of 1st Battalion The Rifles, was returned to the UK.
The welcome that team received as they marched through the town was enough to bring many of these men to tears. Service and ex service lined the streets bearing the colours and flags of their battalions and associations along with the general public of the much loved military town breaking into a spontaneous applause. The Mayor of Royal Wootton Bassett joined the squad to lead the march through the town before given a speech to thank them for what they are doing in support of our injured troops and to wish them well for the remainder of the Operation.
From there it was full steam ahead. Sports Chiropractor Rob Scott, Medic Simeon Tomlinson and Sports Masseuse Emma Brenan were holding the team up well. Strained muscles, aching backs, blisters and impact injuries were all treated enroute to ensure these determined and often stubborn men kept their goal insight and within reaching distance.
Leaders emerged from the quietest of men, the camaraderie of the squad and the encouragement kept everyone motivated even in their darkest hour when bodies and minds were starting to break. “It was everything I feared it would be, but everything I hoped it would be” said James Stock, talking when the team arrived at their final destination of Marlow Hockey Club for a family fun day that was planned and run by the Hockey for Heroes Ladies squad, a number of whom also joined their male counterparts on stages of the operation.
Waiting to greet the teams arrival at Marlow were a number of the England Hockey team including former captain Barry Middleton and midfielder David Ames.
“The wider support has been amazing, to see so many people here today and at every club they visited enroute shows the strength of the Hockey Family. We [at England Hockey] have been proud and honoured to wear the shirt of our country with the Hockey for Heroes logo as our main sponsor, it makes the shirt mean a whole lot more. Its tremendous what this group of guys have achieved”, said David Ames.
It is now estimated that OpStretcher has raised in excess of £65,000 for charity through collection buckets enroute, individual fundraising to a charity auction as Marlow HC funday.
Where do they go from here? December this year will see the Hockey for Heroes again open their doors and invite players and service personnel from across the country to trials in order to build the next squad for 2018.
2018 will also see the newly created Hockey for Heroes Women’s team embark on their own challenge and tour.
For more information on Hockey for Heroes and the amazing work they do, visit their website www.hockeyforheroes.co.uk or to add your own support for such a worthy cause visit their justgiving page www.justgiving.com/fundraising/OpStretcher