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Hockey: From half a world away

Kyle Cassily | Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kory Appleby woke up before dawn in the desert around Ramadi, Iraq, almost every Saturday and Sunday last winter.

The 21-year-old .50-caliber machine gunner in the Indiana National Guard sacrificed rest in between long days in the troubled capital of the Al-Anbar province to power up his computer at 4 a.m. In only a few hours, Appleby would have to get back to fighting a war, but sitting in front of the computer, he could forget about Iraq and the pain of having to leave his wife and newborn son.

Appleby followed every Notre Dame hockey game except one last season live on the play-by-play Gametracker, not caring about the eight-hour time difference between Ramadi and South Bend. He called his wife, Betsy, who sat in the front row next to the Irish bench every game, for the starting lineups before he settled in to watch the game statistics flash onto his computer screen.

“It gave you a break. You do your job everyday, you see stuff that is just ridiculous,” Appleby said. “You see Humvees being blown up and parts of Humvees that have been blown up. That was your time to get away.”

Shipping off

Appleby shipped to Iraq on Oct. 1, 2006 for a one-year tour of duty. His son, Keating, was born on the same day, but his military duty prevented him from being there.

“I missed the birth of my little boy. He started taking his steps before I got back, he used to stand up in the bathtub,” Appleby said. “Watching him grow up in pictures sucked more than anything. There were days when we had mail calls, and I used to hate it.”

He talked to Betsy on the phone as often as he could, and she put up pictures of their son on MySpace for him to see. He also found a better way to keep track of his beloved Notre Dame hockey team than just watching the Gametracker that he said “sucked, it was so slow.”

Appleby had conversations with Irish players Dave Brown, Dan VeNard, Christian Hanson and more on AOL Instant Messenger. VeNard said over the summer Appleby asked him how their lifts and training were going.

“I’d ask him about, not necessarily the details, but getting an understanding of what he’s doing over there,” VeNard said. “We talked a lot about when he’d come home and stuff, looking forward to the future and stuff.

“It was a nice relationship we developed.”

Hanson said he didn’t know Appleby before he shipped to Iraq, but one day Appleby sent him a message explaining who he was, that he was in Iraq and that he was a huge Irish hockey fan. The two talked about the season in general every week or so.

“It takes guts for him to go over and do what he did,” Hanson said. “He left a wife and a newborn to go over and serve our country, and that takes guts.”

Appleby even scheduled his rest and relaxation trip back to the U.S. to coincide with the senior game last February against Ferris State. He brought a MasterCard-style sign that read “Watching Dave Brown play hockey … priceless.” After the game, Brown saw the sign and gave his stick to Appleby before talking and taking pictures with him.

“To have a fan that’s as dedicated as we are to this team is incredible,” VeNard said. “… It’s nice that we put on a good show for him, and for the few hours in the middle of the night over [in Iraq], that he can just rest and have no worries about what else is going on.”

Discovering hockey

Appleby didn’t know that Notre Dame had a hockey team until a little more than two years ago.

He grew up with a love of everything Notre Dame in his hometown of New Castle, Ind., about 50 miles east of Indianapolis, but never had a chance to visit campus. He attended Vincennes University after high school and met his future wife, Betsy, who was a student at Indiana University-South Bend.

“I told [Betsy] that if she ever took me to see Notre Dame, I’d marry her,” Appleby said.

Betsy Appleby took Kory to visit campus in December 2005 and Kory was true to his word. He discovered another important part of his life that day, however.

The couple was visiting the merchandise store attached to the hockey dome when Kory heard the banging sticks and pucks of the practice going on nearby. Intrigued by what was going on, he stayed for practice and talked to backup goalie Rory Walsh. It was all he needed to get hooked on hockey.

“It’s a sport that you can actually get into as a fan,” Appleby said. “I know [Irish coach] Jeff Jackson encourages fans to hit the glass if an opponent gets smashed into it. That makes it kind of fun, the atmosphere of it. The guys, whether they lost by four or five goals or whatever, they’re still going to come out and talk to you and sign autographs.”

By the middle of that 2005-06 season, he and his wife were season ticket holders and have been since. They brought signs to the senior game at the end of that season with “Rory for President” written on them that they smuggled past the turnstile attendants and ushers.

When he flashed the sign to Walsh at the end of the game, the third-string goalie gave him his stick. The stick still hangs on a wall of his apartment, next to Brown’s stick and other Notre Dame memorabilia that hockey and baseball players have given him or autographed for him. His son Keating’s name was taken from the middle name of Irish relief pitcher Jess Stewart, who he met at a baseball dinner during his weekend home from Iraq last year.

Appleby said he chose to make a sign for Walsh because no one knew who he was, which started a tradition, now in its third year, for Appleby and his wife to honor one player a season.

The year after, when he was in Iraq, Appleby said he decided to choose Brown because he wanted to stick with a goalie. This year, however, Appleby finished his tour in Iraq and made it back to Indiana on Sept. 26, a few weeks before the hockey season started.

‘VeNard Nation’

With his player-selecting tradition, Appleby wanted to go back to its roots and choose a lesser-known player. He picked senior defenseman and alternate captain VeNard, who has moved in and out of the lineup with injuries over his career.

To honor VeNard, Appleby made navy blue hooded sweaters for himself and his wife that say “VeNard Nation” on the front with a monogram ND. The back read, “He’ll puck you up.” Betsy Appleby came up with the slogan, and the two wear them in their season ticket seats along the glass to the right of the Irish bench. They have also given the sweaters to VeNard and his mother and father, who wear them to games sometimes.

“I think it’s hilarious, it is a riot,” VeNard said. “The whole thing is a joke because you could do a sweatshirt of Mark [Van Guilder] or Brock [Sheahan], the little more high-profile guys. Doing a plug like myself, it’s pretty funny.”

Appleby gave the sweater to VeNard during the season kickoff dinner. When he did, Hanson joked that maybe people did love VeNard after all.

Appleby and his wife wait after home games this year to talk to VeNard, his parents and all the other Irish players. When he was in Iraq, the players would approach his wife after the games to ask how Appleby was doing in Iraq and how she was holding up at home.

“He’s a great guy,” VeNard said.

Appleby already knows which player he will pick next season, and he and his wife have already planned out the sweater they will make.

Back from Iraq, with no chance of ever being sent back, Appleby will be at every game in the Joyce Center from now on with his wife and son, pounding on the glass and yelling encouragement at players.

“We’re just out here playing a game and having fun in college, and this guy’s over there fighting a war in Iraq, risking his life for ours,” Hanson said. “It means something.”