Sgt. Paul Hodge (left) and Lt. Alexander Samaras stand in the concourse as they wait to join Blackhawks anthem soloist Jim Cornelison on the ice.
Cornelison joins both gentleman after the national anthem concludes.
At the age of 91, Lt. Alexander Samaras received the phone call he had waited years for.
Before the start of each Blackhawks home game, one active military member and one veteran are honored on the ice in front of thousands of fans. They stand at the center of a roaring crowd that's cheering for not only their team, but also for their country. Now it was his turn to be a part of the celebration.
"[When I received the call], I was tickled to death," said Samaras, who served in the United States Navy. "70 years ago was a long time… World War II. And to be honored like this… it's very, very nice."
The Blackhawks' anthem is one of the most spectacular and moving moments in all of sports. Led by soloist Jim Cornelison, the anthem not only serves as a tribute, but also as a way to bring the crowd together as the United Center stands as one to honor those who have served our country. Thanks to the growing partnership between the Blackhawks and the United Service Organizations (USO), a lasting bond has been created between Chicago's hockey and military communities.
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USO president and CEO Alison Ruble has watched the relationship between both organizations develop over the last 16 years, and she couldn't be happier to see our nation's heroes being honored each night in front of such supportive fans.
"I think the salute on the ice is a way for the American people to show their appreciation for those who wear the uniform and provide service to our nation," she said. "As a USO, we're just honored to be that [connection] between the fans and the military and give them that once-in-a-lifetime experience."
The thought of that experience had Samaras feeling a whirlwind of emotions as he waited to walk down to the ice.
"It's going to be a big crowd," he said. "Just listening to [Cornelison] sing the national anthem is big, but I'm going to try to sing with him."
Standing alongside him was 25-year-old Marine Sgt. Paul Hodge. Like Samaras, he was all smiles as he arrived at the United Center, thrilled to be honored by his favorite team.
"I'm a huge Blackhawks fan, so I was absolutely excited to be coming out here," Hodge said. "I can't really say I've done anything like this or I've been more honored to do something like this, so it's a big experience for me."
Before they knew it, it was time for them to experience that feeling firsthand. Both men walked down to the ice, the lights dimmed and 22,000 fans began to roar.
"It was very exciting, [I was] nervous, my legs were shaking, good think I had a marine next to me to take care of me," Samaras said after the salute concluded.
At that moment, both USO members were beaming with pride. It was clear just how much respect they had for each other.
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As the two men walked back to the concourse, fans continued to stand and cheer, thanking them once more for their service to our country.
"It was great. You could feel everything, and I was so proud to be standing next to this gentleman right here," Hodge said as he put his hand on Samaras' arm. "He told me a little about his story before we went down there, so I couldn't be more proud to show my tribute to him as well. This is a great overall feeling."
But the tribute didn't stop there. In fact, while speaking with Hodge, a Blackhawks fan walked right up, offered to buy him a drink and thanked him personally for his services.
"I feel like I'm just respected all around," Hodge said after thanking the stranger for his kind words. "Every time I walk around [the United Center], even when I'm not wearing my uniform, I still get amazing amounts of respect. I can't describe it. It's amazing."
That tremendous amount of pride both Samaras and Hodge felt is something Cornelison experiences night after night. Not only does he experience the emotions of standing and the center of a roaring arena, but he also meets countless heroes who share each of their unique stories with him.
"I love having these guys out there with me," Cornelison said. "It's an honor, a real privilege. I've met some incredible people, and [honoring members of the military] has been a great addition to the anthem tradition here for the Blackhawks.
"It's always emotional having these guys here. After I'm done, I'm able to talk with them and I've seen tears, I've seen shaking, I've seen just smiles and joy. It's really, really neat to be able to show these guys [the Blackhawks' and fans' appreciation]. It's just a small thing we can do."