Naha, Okinawa, Japan --
Skaters at Southern Hills Ice Rink waste no time. Figure skaters squeeze in a few more spins and leaps as the Zamboni cruises slowly around the rink, leaving fresh ice in its wake. As the figure skaters leave the ice one by one, hockey players disguised by protective gear begin slipping onto the rink. Before the machine switches off, the ice is again marred with scars from the sudden stops and turns of the players as they warm up.
“I knew hockey was around the world,” said Lt. Col. Marc Daigler, “but I didn’t expect to find it on a subtropical island in the middle of the Pacific.”
Daigler, the lead comptroller for 3rd Marine Logistics Group, and a native of Buffalo, New York, said he has played hockey at almost every duty station over his 19 years of service in the Marine Corps.
“Coming out to Okinawa I was kind of pleasantly surprised to find that they actually do have an ice rink,” he said. “Then I found the Sniperz team out here -- a lot of the team members are military service members from all four branches, and then we also have a few [Department of Defense] civilians, a couple of DOD contractors, and then a few Okinawans.”
“Interestingly enough, through social media or Facebook, there’s always a group of hockey players in the Marine Corps that link up and we find a rink,” said Captain Ryan Nowak, a Chicago, Illinois, native, center on the Okinawa Sniperz team and Company Commander of Headquarters Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 37, 3rd MLG.
“We play against some of the local clubs here, including the Kokutai, which is a Japanese-wide sports contest against all of the prefectures and hockey is one of the sports,” said Daigler. “Playing against their team to prepare them for the Kokutai competition has been interesting.”
“I think sports is kind of a common way to develop bonds between people from different cultures or different backgrounds,” said Daigler. “If you share a sport in common then, you know, it’s fun, but it also builds camaraderie. [...] You get to see parts of each other’s cultures and it bridges the gap a little bit.”
“There are seldom times that we’re able to interact with local nationals while we’re in the Marine Corps, and that’s usually with military exchanges while in uniform,” said Nowak. “This is the first time for me that I’ve actually interacted with local nationals outside of the military and it’s worked out really well. They’re our friends and we’re their friends. It’s really a special experience because when we’re on the ice we’re enemies, but when the game ends, we take our helmets off and shake hands.”
In addition to games against local teams, the Sniperz participate in occasional intra-military games put on by an organization called Veterans Hockey United. The organization is run by a Sniperz player and it aims to match veteran hockey players with teams in their areas.
“By putting on this Armed Forces Classic, it showcases some of the better players on the island,” said Daigler. “It also shows some of the military people that there’s hockey out in this area and if they’d like to participate, they’re welcome to do so. Then, for the community at large, there’s a big event with Americans playing ice hockey, which hopefully grows interest for the sport. Hopefully, we’ll get some more local players to come out!”
For those seeking more information about playing with the Okinawa Sniperz team, Daigler recommended joining the Okinawa Sniperz Facebook Group. The team posts information about practices and games and connects players in need with rides to the rink or extra gear.
Daigler added, “There’s no experience necessary!”