Korean War vet, 90, fires up Syracuse AHL team with pre-practice speech
By LINDSAY KRAMER | Syracuse Media Group | Published: November 6, 2019
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — Leonard Graf celebrated another birthday Tuesday, and a day later he received what he described as the best birthday present of his life.
And that’s really saying something, since Graf is 90 years old. But the Syracuse Crunch found a way to add a special twist to the event.
The Crunch named Graf, a Syracuse native, honorary captain for the Military Appreciation Night game against Belleville on Friday at the War Memorial. Graf served in the Air Force and fought three years in the Korean War.
"This is No. 1 (on the all-time gift list). It’s a real great honor,” he said of Syracuse’s tribute.
Syracuse asked Graf, a lifelong hockey fan, to make a short speech to the team before practice on Wednesday. He recounted his love of the sport and expressed appreciation to the Crunch, now in its 26th AHL season, for keeping it alive in Syracuse. He also reminded the players not to hesitate going into the dirty, physical areas during games.
When he was done Syracuse defenseman Luke Witkowski presented Graf with replica camouflage jersey that the players will wear on Friday.
Graf is No. 90, naturally.
“How about that? That is really something. This is gorgeous,” Graf said of his jersey.
After the presentation, Syracuse goalie Mike Condon gave Graf a behind-the-scenes tour of the War Memorial.
“It’s awesome. It’s always great to get a dose of perspective from older generations who’ve sacrificed so much for this country,” Condon said. “I think sometimes we lose perspective on how lucky we are. We get to live in a country as free and as democratic as we do and have the opportunity to come out here and play something that we love. It’s thanks to generations like that who are able to provide us opportunity for it. So it’s been very humbling and a great honor.”
Even though the War Memorial looks a lot different than his era, the building is familiar turf for Graf. He was among the original group of investors to bring the EHL’s Syracuse Blazers to town in 1967. He continued to be involved with the franchise through the 1970s in various roles before the team folded in 1977.
“I thought it (pro hockey in Syracuse) was done when we were done. We tried getting other people to be stockholders and all that. They liked the game but they didn’t want come up with the green,” Graf said. “I lost a ton of money, honest, just trying to keep the team alive and keep them here. Eventually, you’ve got to fold.”
Graf often comes to Crunch games as a fan and he will take the Syracuse hockey center stage on the ice Friday when he drops the ceremonial first puck.
“I have so much respect for those guys. I always appreciate doing those (ceremonies),” Witkowski said. “(To) get to honor him and give thanks for what he sacrificed and what he gave up in his life so that we can live the way that we do. It’s great.”