Tracy military connections celebrated at Stockton hockey game
by Sam Matthews
Apr 11, 2014 | 5674 views | 0 0 comments | 45 45 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dr. Leroy Leal drops a symbolic game-opening puck on the ice Friday night at the Stockton Arena while players from the Stockton Thunder (left) and the Utah Grizzlies strike a hockey pose beside him. Courtesy of Asvitt Photography
Dr. Leroy Leal drops a symbolic game-opening puck on the ice Friday night at the Stockton Arena while players from the Stockton Thunder (left) and the Utah Grizzlies strike a hockey pose beside him. Courtesy of Asvitt Photography
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Dr. Leroy Leal stepped onto a small carpet laid over the ice at Stockton Arena last Friday night, held his head up as instructed and dropped a hockey puck onto the ice.

The retired Tracy dentist dropped the symbolic puck in front of two hockey players — who handed it back to him — to start the game between the hometown Stockton Thunder and the visiting Utah Grizzlies.

Leroy, still going strong at the age of 97, was selected to drop the puck for his service with the Army Air Corps during World War II. He served as a dentist at Lancaster and later as dental clinic director at Luke Field near Phoenix, ending his service as a major.

The Stockton hockey team celebrated Military Appreciation nights Friday and Saturday and sought out veterans of World War II to drop the puck both evenings.

Through a contact of golfing friend Ben Green with the Welcome Home Heroes Foundation, Leroy was selected and agreed to take part.

Friday night, I went along with Leroy and Ben to the Stockton Arena, an indoor sports and special events facility I had often heard of but never had been inside before.

Although Stockton went heavily into debt to construct it, the Stockton Arena is an impressive venue with a seating capacity of 9,300. Friday night, it was about half filled with a crowd of 4,500.

We were joined at the arena by Joe Perez, a Vietnam vet active in Tracy’s VFW post. And then Debra Bachle, who heads up corporate sponsorships for the Thunder hockey team, took Leroy under her wing and escorted our group to the back of the playing level of the arena.

There, Debra coached Leroy on the basics of puck-dropping, cautioning him to hold his hand out straight before the drop and to keep his head up to face a camera recording the event.

Leroy made a couple of practice drops just as the heavily padded hockey players made their way past us to go onto the ice.

Then, after opening ceremonies were completed, a short carpet was laid out on the edge of the ice and Leroy stepped forward. Flanked by two hockey players — one each from the Thunder and the Grizzlies — Leroy was introduced the crowd and then held out the puck and dropped it. The deed was done, and the hockey game began.

I’ve never been a fan of hockey games on television, but I have often been told that it’s different being at the game itself. That definitely proved to be the case Friday night. Seeing and hearing hockey action up close is a different experience.

The Thunder and Grizzlies are both the entry-level teams into professional hockey for most of their players. But the young hockey players — half from the U.S. and half from Canada —are more than pretty good, or they wouldn’t be there. And as I had been told, the action was fast and furious.

The Thunder, a Stockton institution since 2005 and a farm team for the New York Islanders, prevailed, winning the game 3-2.

In addition to our group, Keith Robertson and his entourage were seated across the arena from the puck drop, which Keith recorded with his cellphone camera.

Seated near us in the box level were real Thunder fans — Scott and Julie Conover. They have season tickets to the Thunder games and bring the whole family.

The Conovers were at Friday’s game for a special reason, though. They were among Gold Star families being honored. As the photo of their son, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bandon Dewey — killed in Iraq in 2006 — was flashed on the arena screen at halftime of the game, they proudly waved a red Marine Corps banner.

It was a night to salute the military, from a World War II veteran dropping the opening puck to a Tracy couple saluting the memory of their fallen son.

In the process, I witnessed my first hockey game in a half-century (remember the San Francisco Seals?) and got a glimpse of what ice hockey in Stockton is all about.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at shm@tracypress.com or 830-4234.

 
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