Capitals center Matt Hendricks grew up in Minnesota as the son of a U.S. Marine.
He was raised to salute the American flag, respect those who serve in the military and honor those who gave their lives for the preservation of freedom.
“I was brought up that you give thanks to those who fight for your freedom because without them our country wouldn’t be what it is,” Hendricks said. “That’s the mindset I was brought up with.”
If anyone can appreciate the true meaning of Memorial Day weekend, it is Hendricks.
In December, during the NHL lockout, Hendricks joined Nationals pitchers Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen, country singer Kellie Pickler and comedian Iliza Shlesinger on a weeklong USO Holiday Tour, which took them to airfields in Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan, a medical center in Germany, and stops in Bahrain and Kyrgyzstan.
“The biggest thing I brought back [from Afghanistan] is that news outlets don’t do it justice,” Hendricks said. “You see video or pictures and it doesn’t emphasize the real hell hole that place is and that our troops are in.”
Hendricks said it was during his trip to Afghanistan that he expressed to Bryan B. Battaglia, senior advisor to the Joint Chief of Staff Army General Martin E. Dempsey how much he appreciated the sacrifice of U.S. troops and medical personnel.
“I said to him, ‘Man, I can’t believe that our troops live like this and these are the conditions they work in every day,’” Hendricks recalled. “There’s no days off, it’s hard times.
“I talked to people who had been over there for nine, 10, 12 months without a break. I mean, it’s tough. And [Battaglia] said, ‘If there’s a message to bring home, it’s that freedom isn’t free.’”
Hendricks said his trip to Afghanistan reminded him of stories his father, Doug, shared when he was stationed in Hawaii during the Vietnam War.
“He was waiting for his number to get picked [to get deployed] and it never did,” Hendricks said. “He would show up at the mess hall every day and it was like a game of bingo. Who was gone? He lost a lot of friends.”
As a teenager Hendricks said he wanted to join the military, but his father never let him. Since becoming an NHL player with the Capitals, Hendricks has volunteered his time and efforts with several Wounded Warrior events, including annual skating parties with members of TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. He and his wife, Kim, are also strong supporters of Defending the Blue Line, a charity that assists children of military members to participate in local hockey programs.
“There are, unfortunately, a lot of casualties, and families go through a lot of hardships back here and it’s just a great program that gives back,” Hendricks said of TAPS. “With the Courage Caps, the Washington Capitals organization does a tremendous job in supporting them.
“My wife and I, our goal is to give back. As long as my hockey career lasts, as long as I can get my name out there, I want to give back as much as I can to those families that support our country.”