By Mark Zimmaro
Few people could possibly understand what Devon Richio has been through.
A young U.S. Marine had returned home with more than he bargained for after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As part of a combat engineers unit in Iraq in 2009, Richio’s group worked on the front lines and was tasked with making roads safe for other military.
“I was on a road-clearance team,” said Richio, now 31. “We would drive out at night with equipment to look for IEDs. The main idea was we would run over these IEDs in big protective vehicles so people driving through with less protected vehicles wouldn’t hit it. We were kind of like sitting ducks, I guess. We were the canaries to go out and find them. I was the gunner on top of the truck, and we would drive the highways looking for bombs.”
That was just the first deployment.
Two years later in Afghanistan, Richio was a civil affairs operator attached to a reconnaissance battalion to minimize the impact of American forces operating in the area. It was a different form of stress he encountered.
“I kind of smoothed things over with the civilians while we were blowing (stuff) up,” Richio said.
When he returned stateside, things were different for the South Philly native, who grew up around 19th Street and Snyder Avenue and is now a captain in the Philadelphia Fire Department.
Richio had suffered knee and back injuries as well as some hearing loss. The worst, he says, is the post traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition triggered from terrifying events.
Clearing bombs will do that to you.
And Richio found comfort in playing his favorite sport with like-minded individuals. He heard about a relatively new ice hockey program called Flyers Warriors, which was created in December 2018.
The team is made up of disabled military veterans of all service branches, and the program welcomed skaters of all skill levels. Richio clearly knew how to tie his own skates, having played the sport for about 20 years.
He quickly found a brotherhood among teammates with similar stories. Hockey began healing him.
“It helps me to deal with my issues, knowing that I’m around like-minded people,” Richio said. “When I have my bad days or get in my moods, it’s easier knowing I can go to (hockey) practice. Now that we’re not practicing, I can go to our Wednesday-Friday-Sunday meetings. It’s an outlet for me. People want to be around other people that understand.”
The team was adopted as an official affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers and it wears the Flyers crest to represent the city. The Flyers and the NHL chipped in $50,000 to get things rolling, and the group has done nothing but bring honor and victories back to the City of Brotherly Love in its short time of operation.
Within its first year, Flyers Warriors competed in — and won — the 2019 USA Hockey Warrior Classic tournament in Las Vegas.
“The first game, we were down, 2-0, in the first period and our coach snapped us out of it and laid down a game plan,” Richio said. “We came right back. I think all of us having that military part of our lives made it easy for us to come together quicker to face adversity.”
The bonds became apparent off the ice, too. Despite having the bright lights of Vegas nightlife at their doorstep, the team kept things mostly in check to prepare for the tournament.
“Not only for myself, but for my team because everyone takes pride in being a part of the Flyers Warriors program,” Richio said. “It’s a big deal, and we don’t take it lightly. We understand that the Flyers and the Flyers Alumni have done a lot for us. We appreciate that, so everyone was focused on winning for the team.”
They celebrated the good times and they supported each other through the tough times. It’s the same tightrope he walks with the Philadelphia Fire Department, where he has served more than a dozen years.
And it was about two years ago, when tragedy struck the department and a good friend was lost.
Lt. Matthew LeTourneau responded from Engine 45/Platoon A to a row home fire on the 2200 block of N. Colorado Street in North Philadelphia. The building collapsed, killing LeTourneau and a resident.
“A buddy of mine was killed,” Richio said, still emotional. “(After it happened) I felt better to be around people in the firehouse who knew what I was experiencing. And that brings it back to how I feel about hockey.”
The Warriors are coached by former Flyer defenseman Brad Marsh, who has embraced the team and the players. Marsh played more than 1,000 National Hockey League games and coached the Ottawa Lady Senators of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. He’s been a welcomed addition to the Flyers Warriors initiative.
“When it first started, I was like, why does this Canadian guy care about us?” Richio said. “But that’s it. He does care. It’s incredible to see what he’s done for us. He opened his house up to us for a Christmas party. The investment and the resources and the outlet he’s given us is incredible. I think a lot of people understand how indebted we are to him for giving us this opportunity.”
Before the pandemic, the Warriors were scheduled to play the Flyers Alumni and were also hoping to host their own tournament with other disabled veteran teams from other cities.
More friendships will be made, for certain.
“We have fun, we play hockey and we socialize outside of hockey,” Richio said. “Five of these guys came to my wedding. It’s a second family, without the field day.” ••