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NHL Stadium Series

Air Force hopes Stadium Series between Kings, Avalanche hits new heights

Cadets, officials confident experience will top outdoor game at Navy two seasons ago

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- It begins in Basic Cadet Training, otherwise known as Beast. To transition from civilian life to the U.S. Air Force Academy, new cadets go through six weeks of mental and physical tests.

Among the things they learn about is the rivalry with the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The mantra: "Beat Army. Sink Navy."

"What's your altitude?" a superior might ask.

"My altitude is 7,258 feet above sea level, far, far above that of West Point or Annapolis," the cadet must respond.

Naturally -- and good-naturedly -- Air Force will bring that attitude to the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series between the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings at Falcon Stadium on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN360, TVAS2).

How will this outshine the first NHL outdoor game at a military academy, the 2018 NHL Stadium Series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis?

Will it be the cadets? The planes? The parachutists? The rest of the pageantry? 

"Just having it here already outclasses Navy," said Maj. Art Dulin, a 2004 graduate who is now an instructor pilot. "We already start above. We're well above from the beginning just by default and by location."

Air Force is far, far younger than Army and Navy. Air Force swore in its first cadets in 1955 and moved to the Colorado Springs area in 1958. Army was established in 1802, Navy in 1845.

George Simler, an Air Force general and athletic director, thought up the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, which has gone to the winner of the football series between the academies each year since 1972. Navy currently holds the trophy, but Air Force has won it more times (20) than Navy (16) or Army (eight).

They're in the same family, but the younger sibling tries to one-up the older ones. 

Sometimes literally.

Air Force hockey captain Matt Pulver's older brother, Mitch, and older sister, Allison, each went to Navy. Mitch played hockey; Allison ran track.

Mitch went to the 2018 Stadium Series. The field was staged as a scaled-down deck of an aircraft carrier with a model plane. Led by the drum and bugle corps, more than 200 midshipmen marched out in uniform as if manning the rails of a ship headed to sea. Members of the men's and women's hockey teams skated out with the Canadian and American flags before a crowd of 29,516 as fireworks shot into the air. An F/A-18 Super Hornet flew over.

"He said it was a blast," Matt said. "He said the atmosphere is really cool, and he said the carrier theme, it unreal how they were able to do that."

The Air Force hockey team watched on television in the locker room before a team meeting at Cadet Ice Arena. 

"We were like, 'How cool would it be to have an outdoor game here?' " Matt said. 

Then this game was announced Jan. 1, 2019.

"Oh, we were pumped," Matt said. "We were pumped, for sure, because we knew that we were going to have a lot of involvement with the NHL. We knew it was going to be a cool experience for everybody and shed light on our hockey team and what we've accomplished and obviously what we go through."

He smiled.

"And why we're the better academy too," he said.

As Matt likes to remind his brother, Air Force has a Division I hockey team as well as men's and women's club teams. Navy does not. Falcon Stadium (46,692) has a bigger capacity for football than Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (34,000), and its backdrop is the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. 

"Clearly the setting is going to be much better," said Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, a 1985 graduate who is now the superintendent. "Memorial Stadium's a great place, but the setting here, in the mountains, in Colorado, all of the hockey fans that are up along the Front Range, oh, it's pretty clear this will be a much better experience."

He laughed and jabbed Vice Adm. Sean Buck, his counterpart at Navy, and Vice Adm. Ted Carter, the superintendent at Navy during the 2018 Stadium Series. 

"You can tell Admiral Buck and Admiral Carter that," Silveria said.

He laughed again.

"We're going to showcase the academy," he said. "We're going to showcase the Air Force. We're going to showcase the region. So I think there's a huge opportunity here."

The Falcon Stadium field will be staged like an airfield with runways and working lights. There will be a plane, but this won't be a model. It will be an F-16 Thunderbird. The Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, are a key part of the graduation ceremony at the stadium each year.

The Avalanche will make the Falcon Walk as if they were the Air Force football team, greeted by cadets, the drum and bugle corps, the spirit team and the mascot.

Player introductions will conclude with a flyover of three F-16s from Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado and one KC-10 from Travis Air Force Base in California.

Cadets will line the field for the national anthem, performed by the academy's a capella group "In the Stairwell," led by 2nd Lt. Ben Hightower. The cadet honor guard will carry the U.S. and Air Force flags.

The academy's "Wings of Blue" parachute team, outfitted in illuminated suits, will drop into the stadium to deliver the game puck. Silveria and Gen. Jay Raymond, the first Chief of Space Operations of the U.S. Space Force, will participate in the ceremonial puck drop.

A helipad will be the stage when country star Sam Hunt performs during the first intermission and Colorado Springs-based USA Hockey is honored during the second intermission.

As the drum and bugle corps plays as the house band and the spirit team entertains fans, more than 1,000 cadets will sit on the field throughout the event, the first spectators on the field at an outdoor game. They will represent the academy and the Air Force, in particular, but the military as a whole.

Beat Army? Sink Navy? That's all in good fun. They share the same mission.

"We're going to be able to do some things that haven't been done before," Air Force Director of Athletics Nathan Pine said. "So, in the good spirit of our rivalry, we continue to raise the bar on each other, knowing as soon as our young men and women graduate, they're going to be serving alongside each other."

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