-- No player attending this past week's Bruins rookie camp has waited longer to get there or appreciated the opportunity to skate with a professional jersey on more than Zach McKelvie
After all, just two years ago the defenseman didn't know if his dream of playing professional hockey would ever come true.
IN MEMORY: 9/11
Leetch still feels loss of close friend
Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer
Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch
lost a close college friend in the Sept. 11 attacks and found it difficult getting back to playing hockey in the days and months to come. READ MORE ›
After a standout four-year career at Army, Department of Defense policy required McKelvie to remain on active duty for 24 months. Instead of going to training camp with the Bruins' farm team in Providence, he reported to Fort Benning, Ga., for training and to await an assignment.
McKelvie just received his release from the Army on Sept. 7, and that gave him time to make it back to the Bruins, who had signed him to a one-year deal in the summer of 2009 and maintained their ties to him throughout his service.
He again signed a one-year deal with the team in anticipation of his probable release.
"It's a little surreal," he said after his first rookie-camp practice Friday at the Bruins' Ristuccia Arena practice facility. "I think one thing that the two years off helped me [is to] appreciate every day I get to jump on the ice. Some of my best friends are over in Iraq or Afghanistan right now and I just try to think about them and realize that we have nothing to complain about when they're over there serving."
A combination of an interest in the military and an opportunity to play NCAA Division I hockey led McKelvie to enroll at West Point in 2005, even as the U.S. was engaged in two wars.
McKelvie, who's listed at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, won the fastest-skater competition at the 2009 Frozen Four and posted totals of 5 goals and 17 points in 33 games as a senior at Army in 2008-09. He earned an invite to the Bruins' development camp that summer, but was unable to skate because he was recovering from shoulder surgery. At training camp he engaged in some on-ice drills before he was assigned to Providence.
However, the DOD rejected his appeal to at least get a year of pro hockey under his belt before putting in his two years with the Army. So in the winter of 2010 he reported to Fort Benning.
' rookie prospect Zack McKelvie. (Photo: Sarah Connors/somethingsbruin.net)
"I was an infantry officer, so Fort Benning is kind of the home of the infantry and armor," McKelvie said. "And so I went down there for infantry officer school and then stayed down there as an executive officer in a basic training company. And I worked in the Fort Benning G-3, which plans the training at Fort Benning."
During the course of his two years in Georgia, the Minnesota native adjusted to his new climate ("it's pretty hot down there," he said) and tried to keep his ties to hockey.
"I tried to stay in the best shape as possible, and obviously the Army has a pretty good physical program," he said. "So the physical part is not bad. I tried to get on the ice as much as I can, but it's tough because the ice down in Georgia is kind of seasonal. So it was tough to get on the ice. But I tried to get on there as much as possible."
When he reported for rookie camp, McKelvie impressed Bruins assistant general manager Jim Benning, who commended McKelvie's performance in the running test and 4.9 percent body fat. After watching McKelvie on the ice with his fellow Bruins prospects for the first time in two years, Benning could see the skating and puck-handling ability the Bruins were attracted to, with nary a sign of rust.
Most important, McKelvie brings intangibles the Bruins desire.
"It's a little surreal. I think one thing that the two years off helped me [is to] appreciate every day I get to jump on the ice. Some of my best friends are over in Iraq or Afghanistan right now and I just try to think about them and realize that we have nothing to complain about when they're over there serving."
-- Zach McKelvie
"He's a high-character kid, with his background in the military," Benning said. "He's a type of player we want in our organization, so we're going to give him a chance to see where it turns out."
Although he was released by the Army, McKelvie is still enlisted in the reserves. He can be called back at any time he's needed. He has also promised to serve the Army in recruiting and marketing efforts.
His road to pro hockey has been a long and winding one, but he wouldn't trade it for any other experience and that's exactly how he would sell the military life to someone considering following his path.
"If you plan on playing sports after, it's a tough route," he said. "But the Army is full of great opportunities. Before you go, make sure you analyze your decision. But it's a great career. There's amazing people in the Army and so I won't change it. Obviously it's tough to take two years out, but I wouldn't change it."