As the clock ticked down on a particularly spirited contest, Cody Ikkala and Patrick Pinder were at each other’s throats after a battle in front of the net. Tempers flared, gloved fists flew, and it took no small effort from the on-ice officials to break up the altercation.
When the final horn sounded, however, Ikkala and Pinder shared a hearty handshake, and the natives of Philadelphia and Calgary, respectively, happily joined in a group photo at center ice.
With the game over, the two defensemen – Ikkala from the U.S. Military Academy and Pinder from its Canadian counterpart, Royal Military College – were teammates again, ready to guard something much more valuable than a hockey net.
“We battle each other on the ice,” said Army sophomore Maurice Alvarez, “and we’re dogs out there against each other, but as soon as we graduate, we’re on the same team, no matter what.”
As much as the game may have changed in the last 90 years that sentiment certainly hasn’t as the Black Knights and the Paladins write a new chapter in what’s been billed as the “oldest continuous international rivalry in college sports.”
The legacy of the Army-RMC series dates back to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s tenure as superintendent of the academy. In the early 1920s, MacArthur wrote a letter to RMC’s commandant, Maj. Gen. Sir Archibald MacDonnell, suggesting that the two schools compete on the athletic field. The eventual result of that correspondence was the first meeting between the teams, which took place at West Point, N.Y., on Jan. 23, 1923.
A return engagement took place the next year in Kingston, Ontario, and the academies continued to exchange visits through 1939, until World War II interrupted the proceedings.
RMC dominated the early meetings, winning the first 11 games and running off a 14-0-1 record before Army broke through with a 3-2 win in 1939. However, that victory – and a 3-1 Army victory when the teams met again in 1942 – heralded a change in fortunes during the postwar era. The Black Knights went 6-4 in the 1950s and 8-2 in the 1960s, while RMC has only won consecutive games once since 1938, a three-game win streak spanning from 1982 to 1984.
"We’re dogs out there against each other, but as soon as we graduate, we’re on the same team, no matter what.”
While Army grew stronger as a program, the rivalry grew weaker, and soon found itself at a critical juncture. As the series moved into a new century, RMC began playing civilian graduate students against the cadets. The presence of these older students, while legal under the rules of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, became a point of contention for Army, which looked to keep the game an all-cadet affair. A current of bitterness permeated the rivalry, and following a 3-3 tie in Kingston in 2006, the series was suspended.
There was some renewed contact when Adam Shell took over as head coach at RMC for the 2007-08 season, but it took a little longer for the games to resume, as RMC returned to Tate Rink last year for the 76th playing of the game, a 9-1 Army romp.
That wasn’t the kind of tradition RMC was looking to restore, but this year’s game was a tightly contested affair, in which the Black Knights got all they could handle from the Paladins and goaltender Paul Dorsey before pulling away with two goals in the final eight minutes for a 4-1 victory.
“We had a chance to win that game with 10 minutes left in the third,” Shell lamented afterward. “We did want to redeem ourselves from last year, so I was pleased with that. We’re a better team. There’s no question that we’re building.”
Army head coach Brian Riley, the third member of his family to coach in the Army-RMC series, seconded that notion.
“I think the more we get back to playing, the more the rivalry will pick up,” Riley said.
Some of that involves educating a new generation of players about the meaning of the rivalry, but they seem to be getting the message.
“We have a board in our room where they put pictures of the teams that win these games every year – Air Force and RMC – and we wanted to come out and beat RMC so we could get our picture on there,” Alvarez said.
That sentiment had a familiar ring for Jack Riley, who coached the Black Knights from 1950 to 1986 before handing the reins over to his sons Rob (1986-2004) and Brian (2004-present).
“It’s big for hockey,” the elder Riley said. “It’s a big deal at West Point, but hockey is the thing that gets all the publicity for it. We love to beat them, and they love to beat us.”
And, while that rivalry remains undeniably intense between the whistles, the spirit of camaraderie is equally palpable. The Army and RMC pep bands sat side by side during this year’s game, with the two bands playing in unison on both schools’ fight songs and some members even exchanging jerseys, a fitting complement to the camaraderie on display when the game was over.
“Someday down the road these guys could be across the table from one another, serving somewhere around the world,” Brian Riley said.
“There is a passion on both sides to win, but after the game, to have them come together like that … to me, that’s what I think was meant when this rivalry was started.”
Without a doubt, MacArthur would be proud.
Elliot Olshansky is a freelance writer based out of Hartsdale, N.Y.