|Army head coach Brian Riley has led the Black
Knights to this year's AHA League title, the first
for the Academy in their 100-plus year history.
After a formal introduction last September, Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal
may have asked Army's assistant captain and senior Luke Flicek to pass the salt.
Maybe Penguins' captain Sidney Crosby
queried senior Bryce Hollweg, the only three-year captain in school history, about what it's like to study and play hockey on the same campus once traversed by Generals Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to name a few of the distinguished alumni at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York.
"We had NHL players back here the past few falls," said fourth-year Army coach Brian Riley, the third Riley in succession to coach the program for the past 57 years.
"It was great for our players to rub elbows with players like Sidney Crosby
when the Penguins came here for some team building. They wanted to spend some time with our cadets and experience what West Point is all about. Their whole team had lunch with our players. They seemed more in awe of our guys and what goes on here than our guys. Just a great experience for both teams."
Last weekend, Riley's Black Knights awed their fans by winning their first conference championship in the program's history dating to 1904.
"To win that first championship is something that is now pretty special in Army history," said Riley about the Atlantic crown. "Now I know why my dad (Jack) stayed here for 36 years (1951-1986). I know I can never fill his shoes. He's won a gold medal (as coach of the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team) and over 500 games, but he told me seeing us win the league championship last weekend was one of his proudest moments."
Brian's brother, Rob, coached the Cadets from 1986-2004.
"This program is about special people in a special place with what's going on in the world today," Riley said. "These young men come to West Point, knowing they're going to have to serve their country after hockey. When we go into other rinks, our guys are standing at attention, and you can just see other people staring at our guys. And going; 'Wow, look at those guys.'
"They love hockey, but when they leave here and graduate West Point, they'll go on and do a lot more important things than playing hockey games."
For Riley and his current group of Black Knights, however, including 12 seniors and six juniors, the battle lines are etched in red and blue these upcoming weeks.
It's all about getting back to the conference championship game, and atoning for last year's 6-1 loss to Air Force; a missed opportunity for Army to be the first military academy in the NCAA tournament at the Division I level.
"Definitely, the strength of our team is our leadership," said Riley last Sunday morning after his No. 1 seed punched a ticket to this weekend's conference semifinal by dispensing American International College in Atlantic quarterfinal action.
Riley has much strength across the pine in players whose major areas of discipline off the ice range from engineering psychology to engineering management.
"On the first line," he assessed, "Luke Flicek (12-26-38) is a kid who lives, breathes and thinks hockey - very committed to being the very best. He wants to win and he wants to score. Bryce Hollweg plays on that line and brings the physical presence to that line that allows other guys to do other things.
"(Sophomore) Owen Meyer (21-18-39) has the potential to be one of the top forwards in this league. He's a pro-style type player. He does things in practice and games where people say; 'Wow, this is a special kid with special talent.'
Black Knights junior Josh Kassel, Atlantic Goalie of the Month for February, hasn't flinched much since mid-January.
|Army goaltender John Kassel has given up just
15 goals in the Black Knights' last 15 games.
"What can you say?" said Riley about Kassel. "Just an unbelievable stretch. We're 13-1-1 in our last 15, and he's given up 15 goals. He's given us the opportunity to win every game, even games where we haven't really been on."
The rest of the graduating class includes Ken Rowe, Jeff Fearing, Rob Ross, Chris Blair, Chris Colvin, Aaron Anderson, Lyle Gal, Ian McDougall, and Biff McNally.
What's really unbelievable about Riley's team is how they can manage their time and compete at this level.
"Prioritizing is the thing," said Flicek, who hopes somehow to play after graduation. "Maybe, you want to relax and have some down time. But I have to get 8 1/2 hours sleep or I'm going to be a wreck tomorrow. You have to know when to sit back -- and when to go to work."
Army goes back to work again this weekend; there will be no sitting back.
The Black Knights play the winner of Friday's play-in game between Sacred Heart and Mercyhurst on Saturday in one semifinal at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y. Air Force plays RIT in the other. The winners play Sunday for the tournament championship -- and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
"We're carrying that chip on our shoulder from last year," said Flicek, "so I think we'll be pretty focused. Last year I think we were just happy to be in the championship game."
On Campus Clips
-- New Hampshire's Mike Radja
was named College Player of the Month for February by the NCAA Commissioners; Radja led the Wildcats to a 7-0-1 record with five two-point games and a trio three-point games. … The February rookie award went to Colorado College goalie Richard Bachman
, who posted a 6-1 record with a 1.59 GAA. … CC was the final team to nail down a conference title, taking the WCHA crown last weekend with a sweep of Denver. … North Dakota ended the regular season with the nation's longest unbeaten streak at 17, not having lost since Jan. 4. … Sunday's triple-overtime victory by Nebraska-Omaha over Alaska in CCHA first-round tournament play, lasting 104:22, was the longest game in CCHA history and the ninth-longest in NCCA history. … Quarterfinal league tournament action is under way this weekend in the WCHA, the CCHA, Hockey East, and the ECACHL; semifinal and final games will be played in Atlantic Hockey and the CHA. … The winners of each league tournament receive an automatic bid to the 16-team NCAA tournament in four regional sites on March 28-30; 10 other teams qualify at-large, based on the final PairWise power rankings.
NHL.com's Top 10
1. North Dakota
3. Colorado College
4. New Hampshire
6. Michigan State
9. Boston College
10. St. Cloud