Retired US Marine Joey Woodke has been on the US national Para ice hockey team for two years, but has yet to compete overseas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The World Para Ice Hockey Championships this month in Ostrava, Czech Republic will be his first opportunity to do so.
“I’m still relatively new to the game,” he said. “I’m just excited to get my name out there and show people what I can do.”
Woodke grew up on a farm in hockey-obsessed Michigan, but never knew how to skate as a child. Instead, he opted for basketball, baseball and track.
On March 29, 2011, while on foot patrol with the US Marines in Afghanistan, he stepped on an improvised explosive device. The blast resulted in the loss of both of his legs and damage to his right ear. He spent more than a year and a half at Walter Reed Medical Center recovering.
He met other wounded soldiers during his physical therapy and jumping back into sports helped him rehabilitate quicker. It was at the hospital he first heard about Para ice hockey.
“At first I didn’t even know this existed,” he said. “Then, I got out into the world and saw how amazing it was.”
Woodke moved to Nashville, Tennessee to reunite with two of the other wounded US Marines he met at Walter Reed — John Curtain and Ben Maenza — and to get out of the Michigan cold. Together, they hit the ice and learned the game of Para ice hockey.
Woodke received the keys to an adapted custom home there build especially for him through “Homes for Our Troops.” The wide-open floor plan and automatic doors make it seamless for him to get around.
Six years later, Nashville is now a hotbed for Para ice hockey. The Sled Preds, named after Nashville’s NHL team, has become one of the most attractive Para ice hockey programmes and development pipelines in the country. Seven US national team members are training there, too.
“We slowly got more and more people to come out and play, and we got a kids programme started, too,” Woodke said. “The sport here in Nashville just started to grow, and as we did that we got better and started playing against some of these other national level players.
From development team to NBC
Woodke, whose training is funded through a military pension, spent one year on the US development team before making the 2019-2020 national team. His story was featured on NBC in 2020 as part of their Hockey Day in America coverage.
To this point, Woodke’s only international competition was the 2019 Canadian Tire Para Hockey Cup, at which he recorded one assist in five games. He has hand-cycled seven marathons as a form of cross-training and looks to fellow military veteran and teammate Rico Roman whenever he needs advice.
“He explains things so well and will get on the ice and show you,” he said. “Now, also having Declan Farmer and Brody Roybal here in Nashville has improved my game so much. They move like anybody else, so if you can stay with them you can play with anyone.”
With the pandemic waning now in the US, Woodke is back to training on the ice four days a week and will make his World Championship debut when the reigning Paralympic and world champions take on Canada on 19 June.
That is a matchup Woodke has had on his calendar since the day it was announced.
“Those games get pretty intense,” he said. “The guys talk about them all the time.”