Why Remembrance Day hits home for Brian Elliott

Brian Elliott sports a poppy on his helmet to honour Remembrance Day during his time with the Calgary Flames. (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Excitement.

Gratitude.

Relief.

These are the emotions that would swirl inside Brian Elliott as a military base commander would escort him to the tarmac and wait for the jet to land — so he could greet his wife, Amanda, the very second she finished one of her overseas tours in service of her country with the United States Air Force.

“Just a really great feeling,” Elliott explains. “You're away from each other for so long. We did long distance for four years after college. You know, you kind of get used to it a little bit. But when you know they're in some relative danger overseas and sometimes the communication is not there, and you don't know if everything's OK, or there's a military coup in this country or that country, and trying to stay safe as much as possible… so, you’re relieved and thankful.”

When the Philadelphia Flyers goaltender met his future bride, Amanda was enrolled in a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) college program that would prepare her to become an intel officer based in Grand Forks, N.D.

She did multiple tours overseas, which put hockey — and life — in sharp perspective for Elliott, whose own plane rides are typically first-class charters to five-star hotels to play his boyhood game.

And a direct familial connection to military service that stretches back to Elliott’s great grandfather fighting in World War I has blessed the athlete with a deep appreciation for those who've served — past and present.

Remembrance Day resonates in the Elliott home.

“It's a little bit out of sight, out of mind. You see it on the news, what's going on overseas. You may agree with it; you may not agree with it. And people in the military sometimes don't agree with it. They do their job, and they protect the country and make sacrifices,” says Elliott over the phone from Madison, Wisc., taking a break from autumn yard work.

“My wife obviously went through it and did everything, but what I got to see is how a lot of [families are] sacrificing — and that doesn't get mentioned a ton when dealing with the troops. Everybody says ‘Thank you,’ which is great, and you need to keep doing that.

“But the sacrifices are real. The tours are real. The six months away from your family and not a lot of communication is real. And the people that do that, they put life on hold, or they dedicate their whole life to serve. It's amazing.”

Elliott, 35, considers it a privilege to be invited onto Amanda’s base and get a glimpse into the day-to-day of military life.

“I'm really proud of my wife for doing that,” he says. “She probably would’ve stayed in if it wasn't for us getting married and her kind of following my hockey career around. It's something I know she cherishes and [gave her] a lot of great experiences and a lot of different world views. It's great just [being] a spouse looking on.

“You can see what some of the spouses have to deal with when their partners go overseas and serve, how much pride there is in that. It definitely needs to be appreciated and make sure everybody realizes that this is a big sacrifice they do for all of us.”

You certainly won’t catch Elliott whinging about the imperfect return to play that will be whatever NHL hockey looks like in 2021, or the inconveniences of the summer playoff bubble, where his Flyers came within a game of reaching the Eastern Conference final.

Again, the goalie says, Amanda faced the greater challenge.

“I was ordering room service and playing a game, and she had to deal with two kids and COVID,” Elliott says, “so that's definitely a sacrifice she had to make again.”

When Brian was in the bubble, he quietly dealt with the loss of his paternal grandfather, George Elliott.

“I just call him Papa,” Elliott says.

Growing up in Newmarket, Ont., Elliott fondly remembers his father, Bill, proudly telling him and his brother, Dan, stories about Papa’s work on Base Borden, birthplace of the Royal Canadian Air Force. How he’d train soldiers in small arms before they’d fly to Europe and fight for Canada in the Second World War. How George was on a fighter to the Philippines when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, allowing him to narrowly avoid battle. And how George’s own father, Brian’s great grandfather, wore the Maple Leaf on the ground in the Battle of Somme.

Before he passed this summer, George spent his last eight years in a nursing home in Orillia, Ont. A couple of heart attacks, a stroke, hearing problems — Papa battled to the end.

“My dad made some displays of his medals and some old pictures from being in the military. We got to see that stuff,” Brian says. “He was a farm boy, and my dad grew up on a farm, and when it came time to serve their country, that's what they did. It’s something I take pride in as a family.”

Throughout his various stops during his 14-year NHL run, Brian and Amanda have turned pride into action.

First in St. Louis and later in Philadelphia, Amanda launched a charitable program called Operation Shower that throws baby showers for service members and recruits sponsors to outfit military families with Jolly Jumpers and car seats.

In Calgary, Elliott was the face of Moose’s Troops, a program that treated war veterans to the hockey game and a tour of the dressing room.

“A cool story, actually,” says Elliott, flashing back to his Flames days. “We found out that one of the veterans there, Howie Owen, he knew my grandfather. He actually was trained in small arms from my grandfather. He had some really cool stories to tell about him — how good he was and how well respected he was, even at a young age, to train everybody in small arms before going overseas.

“We didn't know Howie before that, but now my family keeps in touch with him up in the Calgary area. My dad sends emails at Christmastime and stuff like that, just to see how they're doing.”

Most years, Elliott commissions a special military appreciation mask to be designed and auctioned off to support a nearby base.

During his season in Calgary, the mask’s auction price wasn’t high enough, so Elliott himself became the top bidder. (“I bought that one back because it meant something to me,” he says.)

Even with hockey on hold this Nov. 11, Elliott has been in touch with his Philly bucket artist, Paint Zoo, and the two of them are planning a special piece to honour veterans for 2020–21.

“[Paint Zoo’s] grandfather, his father and his mother are all Marines, so he has a definite connection to it as well,” Elliott says, excited. “He's gonna design it with some help with from his family and some of the military members around him.

“In the Philly area, there's another big base right down the road from the Wells Fargo Center. The Philadelphia Warriors is the military hockey team that we had the opportunity to come out and skate with us a couple times in the past few years. I’ll talk to some of those guys and see where the funds are most needed.”

For Elliott, Remembrance Day arrives more than once a year.

From making arts-and-crafts poppies in kindergarten to Papa’s war tales becoming part of family lore to some of his early NHL training camps as a Senator, Elliott has developed a sincere respect for the life his grandfather and wife chose.

“Being in Ottawa for a couple years, we got to train at the base up there, putting on the heavy packs and running the trails like they did, doing the obstacle courses. You see what training they have to go through,” Elliott says. “They're going to real war. We're just kind of [in a] pretend war when we go out on the ice. And that's what really puts things into perspective, no matter what country you're in.”

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