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by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning


tbl.commentator: Melanie Formentin

When the Air Force Academy flies into town next week it won't be to visit Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base. Instead, the Academy will be sending its ice hockey team to the Tampa Bay area to participate in the inaugural Lightning College Hockey Classic at the St. Pete Times Forum October 27-28.

For the Air Force hockey team, the opportunity to play in the College Hockey Classic presents challenges and opportunities that the club looks forward to facing.

This season marks the first year that Air Force is participating in the Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA). The Falcons join the AHA coming off of a successful final season in the College Hockey America Conference (CHA).

In their seventh year as a member of the CHA, the Falcons played to their most successful season within the conference by winning a school record eight games against CHA opponents. Although they played to an overall record of 8-12 against CHA rivals, Air Force out-shot its opponents in 24 of 32 games and looks to make a mark in the AHA as its top eight scorers return this season.

The Division-I AHA conference that the Falcons have joined this season is not short on competitive talent. Comprised of teams such as Holy Cross, Mercyhurst, the University of Connecticut and College Hockey Classic participant Army, the winner of the AHA tournament is guaranteed an automatic berth in the year-end NCAA Tournament. With that kind of incentive, it's no wonder that the shortened season schedule, and tournaments such as the College Hockey Classic, carry so much weight.

"When you have a short schedule like we do, with 34 games, you like to get on a roll, have success and establish some momentum," Air Force head coach Frank Serratore said. "You don't have that long [of a] season so you can't really afford to ebb and flow as much. You need to get on a roll and do as well as you can because you play so few games."

For Serratore, the focus of the upcoming tournament will not be on simply winning the championship, but on treating it as a regular series of games that count towards the greater ends that the season holds. With the shortened schedule presenting one challenge, Serratore explained that the College Hockey Classic is part of a mad dash to the finish line that differentiates college hockey from the National Hockey League.

"The difference between college hockey and professional hockey is that professional hockey is a marathon," said Serratore. "Those guys play 80-some regular season games and if they get in the playoffs and make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, combined with pre-season, they've played over 100-some games. In college we play 34 regular season games and then the playoffs. You look at the NHL season as a marathon and ours as more of a sprint."

Being a part of such a sprint doesn't mean that these teams can't have fun playing hockey - that couldn't be farther from the truth. Part of that fun comes in participating in tournaments such as the College Hockey Classic where teams will get to play against their rivals while putting some bragging rights on the line.

"It's a tournament and we want go down, have success against Alabama-Huntsville and then have an opportunity to play Notre Dame or Army," said Serratore. "Around here, both those schools draw a lot of attention. The tournaments are fun, [because] you're going in and playing for something. They're non-conference games and you're not playing for league points, but something's on the line. You're playing to win a championship on a weekend and you can grow from all those experiences."

Naturally, those who stand to grow the most from these experiences are the athletes themselves. Going to a new city and destination provides a learning experience that stretches beyond the walls of the rink.

Last season, Air Force took a nine-day trip to Germany to play exhibition games against teams from the German Pro League. The 2-0 record they posted ends up on the books as two results from just one of a variety of weekend tournaments that the Falcons participated in during the 2005-06 season. In addition to the trip to Europe, Air Force also participated in the Ice Breaker Invitational, with star-studded Maine, as well as the Quinnipiac Cup.

This season, Air Force hopes to build a new experience for not only its players, but hockey fans in Tampa.

"I think the people in Tampa will enjoy when they watch the college game," said Serratore. "Obviously the college kids aren't as big and polished and talented from top to bottom in their rosters as the NHL teams are, but the effort and energy level of the games is tremendous just like in all college sports. You'll notice the energy of the college games is very exciting.

"Hockey has become more of a national sport than when most of us were growing up, and it was pretty much a northern regional sport at that. It's exciting to be able to compete in a tournament with Notre Dame and Army and Alabama-Huntsville, and to do it in Tampa is really exciting."

The College Hockey Classic provides an opportunity to not only showcase the enthusiasm that college hockey carries, but it also stands as an opportunity for the Falcons to build on their successes as they participate in a new Division-I conference this season.

Flying in to face off against their college hockey rivals, one can expect Air Force to bring a passionate and energetic game to the inaugural College Hockey Classic this weekend.
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