Tiger grad combines love of Pens with country

After American hockey player, TJ Oshie scored the game-winning goal during an Olympic shootout against rival Russia over the weekend, he was asked what it feels like to be the country’s newest hero.

Oshie patriotically responded: “The American heroes are wearing camo; that’s not me.”

The humble remark earned Oshie even more respect from hockey fans and American citizens, not to mention those who have actually worn that camo, including Army Staff Sergeant Jacob Potter.

“That to me is exact proof of how hockey players are different from other sports,” said Potter from his Army recruiting office in Arizona. “That is a true test of character.”

A hockey fan, high school athlete and 2001 graduate of Hollidaysburg High School, Jake Potter enlisted in the U.S. Army to help his family with college costs. During his first week of basic training, the United States was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11.

“When 9/11 happened, I got a little more pride at that point and just wanted to serve my country,” said Potter, “so I volunteered to go to Iraq.”

Potter served a 13-month tour during the initial invasion into Iraq, and then came home to serve in the Army reserves and then as a recruiter – a post he still holds today, more than a decade later.

He earned the opportunity for lifetime enlistment, so Potter, a die-hard Pittsburgh fan, wanted to include the Penguins in the ceremony; the team was coming to Phoenix for a recent game against the Coyotes.

Potter turned to a friend, retired Sergeant Major JB Spisso, who conducts leadership training for the Penguins, to help set it up, and the Pens were happy to oblige.

So on Jan. 31, during a Penguins practice, with his wife Meghan and 3-year old son Braidyn by his side, Potter re-enlisted indefinitely into the U.S. Army. As he took the oath, the Penguin coaches and players looked on, some kneeling respectfully on the ice, others interacting with the Staff Sergeant and his family.

“It was great to see the Penguins and every single one of them was amazing,” said Potter, remembering that special experience. “My son was playing around with Coach [Dan] Bylsma for a while; Deryk Engelland and Sidney Crosby gave my son their hockey sticks – they have their names on them, and that was amazing.”

The Penguins themselves seemed equally impressed by Potter. Team captain Sidney Crosby was quoted on the team’s website, penguins.nhl.com:

“Hopefully he enjoyed being surrounded by an entire team. It was nice to be a part of that. That’s something we’ll always remember.”

“It’s a big moment for the individual and they choose where they’ll enlist and who will enlist them,” head coach Dan Bylsma added as part of the same web article. “For a Pittsburgh guy he chose us. For a few special moments for our group we participated with him. It was special.”

Having the opportunity to meet the Penguins made Potter appreciate even more the similarities between hockey and the military, which is why the NHL team seeks out Army leadership training during their pre-season practices.

“The biggest thing is the diversity of the Army and a team,” said Potter. “You have many people from many backgrounds and you have to bring everyone together not just the captain is the leader, but everyone has to be a leader.”

Just as the Penguins rely on veterans as well as newcomers like 19-year old Olli Maatta, Potter seeks out those leadership qualities in the teenagers he counsels as they consider a military career.

“And that just shows what kind of people are in the NHL”, said Potter.” It’s neat to see a 19-year-old like Maatta, a big-time NHL star. He’s the kind of person I talk to on a daily basis about enlisting in the army, a fresh-out-of-high-school-kind of guy with a bright future.”

Potter appreciates all the Army has afforded him: he’s completed his bachelor’s degree and looks forward to obtaining a master’s degree, and expects to have a successful career beyond his military service.

But for now, and for the foreseeable future, he’s proud to put on his uniform every day in service to the U.S. Army. And that pride is something he’s now shared with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“It’s a very classy organization with everything they do in the community,” he said. “Not only do I love the team for what they do on the ice, but what they do off the ice as well.”

Potter and the Pens formed a special bond, even as many of the hockey players hail from other nations. The team came together to help one of their fans renew his commitment to his country in a way the Potter family and the Penguins family will always remember.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org.