WEST POINT, N.Y. -- The comment from Army hockey coach Brian Riley consisted of 13 words. It left the 26 players that the Pittsburgh Penguins brought to the United States Military Academy speechless.
"I don't like to lose games," Riley told the Penguins upon their arrival at the West Point campus Friday, "but my greatest fear is losing players."
He didn't mean to injury. He meant in war, and it has happened to Riley and the Cadets' hockey program twice in the past eight years.
Derek Hines, member of the Class of 2003, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2005. Tom Kennedy, a 2000 graduate, was killed in action in Afghanistan last year, reportedly a victim of a suicide bomb.
"That put things in perspective pretty quickly for everyone," Sidney Crosby said.
The Penguins didn't come to West Point for a three-day perspective-gaining session with a couple of practices at Tate Rink mixed in. It's a byproduct of closing out their training camp at the academy, and it's part of what general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma want the players to get out of their Army experience.
The Penguins are here to get three in good practices and bond as a team before turning their focus to the regular season, which for them begins Thursday at Consol Energy Center against the New Jersey Devils. However, Shero and Bylsma also brought the team to West Point so the players could experience the history on this campus, what it means and what it stands for.
They're being hosted by the Army hockey team, a group of 27 cadets who may soon find themselves in real battles, not the kind they get into on the ice during a hockey game.
"They leave here and they get deployed," Shero said. "With them, it's 'Where is your teammate?' 'Oh, he's in Afghanistan.' 'Oh, he's in Iraq.'
"It's not about our team, it's about us as individuals and getting the perspective on life," he continued. "To understand what is going on in the world and the sacrifices being talked about, I think it's important when you talk about our Armed Forces to get that realization of what it's about."
Army has hosted NHL teams in the past, sometimes early in training camp, sometimes late and sometimes during a break in the regular season, even only for a day, like the Philadelphia Flyers on March 25, 1998. The Penguins have been here twice before, but not since 2007. No NHL team has come to West Point since the Flyers in 2008.
Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury are the only players with the Penguins now who were part of the Army trip six years ago. They haven't forgotten anything about that trip.
"I think we all realize the differences between the guys that play [hockey] here and what we do," Scuderi, whose father was a Marine, told NHL.com, "but sometimes it's refreshing to hear."
They started hearing it from Riley on Friday. He's been the coach at Army since 2004, continuing a now 63-year legacy of Rileys leading the academy's hockey program that started with his father Jack in 1950 and continued with his brother Rob in 1986. Rob Riley was an assistant at St. Lawrence University when Shero was a player there.
"I want professional hockey players to come to West Point and leave here with a much greater respect for the service men and women," Brian Riley told NHL.com. "For our players, these are their idols, but by the time the Penguins leave here they make our players feel like they're their idols."
Crosby, for one, hopes that's true.
For example, he may not have known some of the Army hockey players were watching and using their iPhones to record him as he blasted a slap shot from the left circle into the far top corner of the net during practice. But Crosby's plan before embarking on the regular season was to let the cadets know how much he and his teammates appreciate what they do, how they do it and why they do it.
"Oh yeah, it's reciprocated for sure," he said. "We have so much respect for everyone here and everyone that's not here, that's overseas making those sacrifices. The great thing for us is we get to personally meet some of them and hopefully show them that thanks. I think you can say it and hopefully they understand, but we really do appreciate the opportunity to come here, to meet everyone and hear about these experiences."
Prior to practicing Friday, the Penguins experienced the organized and disciplined chaos of eating with the cadets at the Mess Hall. They saw firsthand how 4,400 cadets manage to eat lunch at the same time in a matter of 20 minutes, with freshmen serving the older students.
That alone was an experience they'll never forget.
"It was crazy," Pascal Dupuis told NHL.com. "We're waiting, standing there and within like three minutes the cadets were ready to go in. They were like, 'You guys better get in there now so you don't get trampled.' We walked through the building, sat down, turned around and 4,000 cadets were seated. You could hear a little humming, a little background noise, a white noise basically and that was them sitting down. It was amazing.
"Then it took 15 minutes and they were out while we were like halfway through our meals."
The plan for Saturday, after the Penguins hold a 10 a.m. ET practice, is for the players to experience what it's like to be in an Army shooting simulator. They have a tour of campus scheduled and on Sunday, again after a 10 a.m. practice, they will be led on a hike by an Army general.
They will eat breakfast with the cadets on Monday morning before flying back to Pittsburgh to begin preparations for opening night with a new perspective on their world and how fortunate they are to live and play in it.
"We're spending a few days with what is the ultimate team, the ultimate group in not only how they act but how they train," Bylsma said. "You hope to gain from that in these few days."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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