The U.S. Military Academy’s hockey team had a trying season a year ago, winning just four games, and ending the year on an eight-game losing streak. But even the most painful on-ice loss is nothing compared to the phone call that Army coach Brian Riley knows could come at any moment.
In addition to being students and hockey players, the men who don skates and sweaters at Army, Air Force and Navy are soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines, respectively. As such, in times like these when our nation is at war, they know that part of their job is to go into harm’s way.
During the summer, Coach Riley received one of those calls. Maj. Thomas Kennedy, who once skated for the Black Knights and had worked with the program for years as an officer representative, was the victim of a suicide bombing while serving in Afghanistan. At just 35, Kennedy left behind a wife and young twins.
“It’s my biggest fear,” Riley admitted. “To get that call is just numbing. His parents are the best people. His wife, his twins. To see that pain is just awful.”
And yet, coaches like Riley and Frank Serratore at Air Force know that when recruiting a player to come to a service academy, the knowledge that their skaters may one day trade their shoulder pads and hockey sticks for body armor and a weapon is a very real part of the equation.
And the player who truly thrives in the academy setting is the one who accepts and embraces that reality.
Five years removed from his time on campus in West Point, N.Y., and his time on the ice as captain of the Black Knights, Chase Podsiad spent 12 months leading a platoon in Afghanistan and is now in Texas training National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers who are about to ship out for the Middle East. With the Army rank of captain as a brigade engineer, he’s become an expert in some very dangerous work that is vital to the American mission there – things like clearing explosives, opening routes and construction.
“I wanted to be a leader of men. That’s one reason I joined,” said Podsiad, who still plays pick-up hockey once a week at a rink in El Paso. “I knew I might be in harm’s way, but who better than me? It was a great experience to be a platoon leader, to help our country, and to play a role.”
It’s that drive and attitude that the service academy coaches see again and again when looking for the right kind of person, and player, to spend a decade wearing a uniform and serving their country, first on the ice and then, often, on the battlefield.
“At West Point, in Colorado Springs or in Annapolis, being a hockey player at a service academy and preparing for a career of military service are two things that really go hand in hand, as hockey truly is one of the great ‘warrior’ sports,” said Patrick Murray, director of hockey operations at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Navy has a successful club hockey program, playing at the most competitive non-varsity level.
When the United States armed forces go to war, the involvement level of the three service academies varies due to their differing missions. Conflicts at sea primarily involve the Navy, with the Marines often heading into a hot zone first. Ground-based operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan have primarily involved Army troops on the ground, with Air Force personnel providing support from above as needed.
But despite their different missions and their natural rivalries when they face off on the ice, differences are quickly forgotten when the news of a tragic loss like that of Kennedy reaches the hockey offices in New York, Maryland and Colorado.
“It’s gut-wrenching to hear of one of your service academy mates who has served and not returned,” said Serratore, whose daughter is a senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “We battle like true rivals on the ice, but in times of conflict there’s a brotherhood between the service academies, and we’re all on the same team in that sense.”
As such, the coaches all face the same challenges in recruiting players, knowing that only a very rare person will fit the academies’ rigorous academic standards, and accept the five-year commitment to military service that comes with enrollment. In exchange, they have Uncle Sam paying for four years of college at some of the most renowned institutions of higher learning in the world, and they’re guaranteed a job upon graduation. It’s a job that can often be dangerous, and is considered the highest honor available.
“That, to me, speaks volumes about the character and the type of young man that chooses a service academy,” said Riley, whose father Jack and brother Rob also served as head coaches at Army. “When these men graduate from West Point, they’re going to be officers, and they’re going to be defending the sons and daughters of this country.”
Like any coach who keeps in touch with his former players, Riley often gets email from one-time Black Knights who have completed their military service and are now in civilian life. And just as often, they check in via a secure line from military bases throughout the world.
Riley said he always replies, and usually signs each email with the same parting thought: “Be safe, and know how proud I am of you.”
He traded similar emails with Kennedy earlier in the summer. The son of a retired NYPD inspector, Kennedy was to be stationed at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, upon returning from Afghanistan.
“We didn’t really even say goodbye,” Riley said. “I thought I’d see him in January when we go to Air Force.”
Instead, the coach, the team and the nation got a painful reminder of the special person that chooses to serve the people of the United States, on the ice and in harm’s way.
“To coach this team is a humbling and rewarding experience,” Riley said, as the Black Knights began early-season practices, and a new set of freshmen stretched their legs on the ice of Tate Rink for the first time. “These players are amazing representatives of everything that’s great about our country.”