Jon French: From the blue line to the front lines

Veterans Voices
Jon French, MTU Hockey ’91-’92

HOUGHTON, Mich. (WJMN) – Jon French was introduced to hockey at a young age. He instantly fell in love with the sport.

“I was three years old and I remember sitting at the end of the table eating Corn Flakes and my dad came home from work, he worked third shift at the time,” said French. “He was talking to my mother and he said, ‘Hey, well do you think Jon would like to play hockey?’ She said I remember, ‘I don’t know ask him.’ That’s, kind of, where it started. He took me over and got the equipment. I learned how to skate. After that, I was kind of addicted to it.”

Hockey took French to Michigan Tech.

“I’ve always been very good in math and science and it always came naturally to me,” said French. “So, obviously, Michigan Tech being primarily an engineering school, it was very reasonable to attend and I love the outdoors. So, when you put the hockey aspect, the career, and the education, and the love for the outdoors into it, Michigan Tech just made sense to me.”

He made memories at Michigan Tech that will last his lifetime.

2007 National Championship – Portage Lake Pioneers

“I think the biggest thing that sticks with me is the guys I played with,” said French. “My freshman class came in, the seniors and how they treated us and the camaraderie and the antics amongst the players on the team. I mean, they were some great times.”

French learned to set goals at an early age. After graduating he began a quest to reach those goals.

“I kind of had a bucket list that when I was 16 or 17,” said French. “Hey, what do I want out of life? When you’re that age it’s more like, hey, I want this kind of a truck, I want a house here, a bass boat, or whatever. I had made my list and I was very, very fortunate to accomplish.”

As time went on, he continued to cross off adventures.

“The last thing on my bucket list is there were 3 of us Caribou hunting in Alaska and it was self-guided,” French said. “They drop you off 125 miles from the nearest paved road or town. The 3 of us with 72 pounds of gear including our rifle apiece. They drop you off one-by-one and I realized when I was the last one there, I was like, ‘man, this is the last thing on my bucket list.’ So, naturally, what do you do? you make another list.”

With a new list and his wife’s support, French felt called to serve his country.

“There were other factors, 9/11, everybody remembers where there were at 9/11. Some of the guys that I played hockey with and locally with the Pioneers, they were in the military and they were deployed to Iraq. They had kids and I didn’t have kids and, you know, it was just one of those things, maybe naive thinking, but if I went maybe one of those guys wouldn’t have to go. They can stay home.”

French joined the Army on September 7th, 2007 to become a combat engineer. A year later he was headed to war.

“So, any kind of IED we were kind of like the dog on a leash out in front of anybody else going down a certain route,” said French. “We were trying to engage the enemy rather than have the convoy behind us engage.”

No matter his role, French found ties to the game he loves.

“There’s a lot of cross-over between the military and hockey,” said French. “You’ve got the guys. You’ve got the camaraderie. Everybody has a role. So, if you look at hockey players, you’ve got your grinders, you got your goal-scorers, you got your defensive-defenseman, you’ve got your offensive-defenseman, you’ve got your power-play units, you’ve got your goaltender. Everyone has got a role and everybody strives to be the best that they can be in that role. In support of all the other players on the ice and on the bench as well. When you look at a military setting like that it’s the same way. The only thing different is you’re wearing a different uniform.”

Then came July 19th, 2009.

“On July 19th, I was struck in the chest with a rocket-propelled grenade,” said French. “It came through the turret and detonated on the front chest plate. First of all, you would think it would hurt, it actually wasn’t that bad. You know, the first thing I thought of was I wasn’t sure if it was an RPG or a mortar, but it didn’t hurt that much. It knocked me back in the turret, I was in the turret I was a gunner in one of the lead gun trucks. It knocked me back into the back and it felt like a halfway decent hockey hit. You know, if you got caught with your head down and you’re paying for it. But it’s like, ‘Man, I’m good, I can still breath.”

French inside turret. (2009)

Despite still being conscious, French sustained major injuries.

“I lost my eyesight for 14 days and had numerous internal injuries, but I was still awake and still functional,” said French. “Thank god for the guys in my truck, they were all wounded, every single one of them was wounded. We all helped together and finished putting the tourniquet on myself and continued moving down the road. Just like in hockey, if you get railroaded, run from behind, or cheap shotted, the other guys on your team, which happened to be my platoon are going to stick up for you. That’s what they did, they fought back the enemy, they made sure I was safe, that our entire truck was safe and they brought in a Medivac and they brought us all out.”

Jon French posing at Walter-Reed Hospital with his Purple Heart

French says he felt guilty leaving his brothers behind while he began the long road to recovery.

“I still feel, you know, I wish I didn’t leave, I wish I didn’t have to leave, but at the time part of my right arm was missing, my right elbow was blown off, I was pretty banged up more than they thought and they shipped me back to the states and that’s where I started my recovery,” said French.

Before French could leave the hospital, he needed his next three goals.

“Well, okay I want to be able to eat right-handed again. I want to be able to fire a firearm, a long gun, right-handed again, I want to be able to play hockey. Right off the bat, everyone started to chuckle and said well, hey you got to be reasonable with your goals. My retort was, they’re my goals, not yours. I will find a way.”

No injury could keep him away from the ice.

“He told me I could only lift 15 pounds and he says ‘you got to be careful because there is only so much more we can do. He said, ‘do you have any questions for me?’ I said, ‘well, yeah how long before I can get back out on the ice and start playing hockey?’ He chuckled and said, ‘No, it’s not going to happen.’ I’m like, ‘no seriously.’ He said, ‘It’s not going to happen.”

French didn’t listen.

“I came back to the area, to the Copper Country Old Timers, hanging out with my buddies, and all of the sudden I’m coaching, I’ve got kids now, I’m starting to get out on the ice, starting to coach and really missing it. So, I started going out and against the doctor’s advice, I started playing hockey.”

Hockey ended up playing an important role in French’s recovery.

“Every year I go back for an annual checkup and I didn’t tell the doctor what I was doing but after the second our third time, he’s like, ‘you know what, I don’t know what you’re doing, but whatever you’re doing keep doing it.” So, I took that as, hey you’re playing hockey, I’m going to write you a script to play hockey, go play hockey.”

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