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NHL Stadium Series

Navy players soak in Stadium Series practice

First-class midshipmen, members of club team, watch, interact with Maple Leafs

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland -- Craig Massman, Jon Smith and Michael Burke, all first-class midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, got the scoop that the Toronto Maple Leafs were practicing at McMullen Hockey Arena on Friday.

There was no chance these three, who are also all players for Navy's Division 2 club team, were going to miss the chance to watch the NHL team practice on their home rink.

"It's not something you see on a regular basis," Smith, 25, said. "A lot of these guys we look up to and seeing some of the names on the ice out here, it's pretty sweet."

Massman, Smith and Burke will get another up-close look at the Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals on Saturday, when they'll be on the ice with the rest of Navy's hockey men and women club hockey players holding the American flag during the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" prior to the 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SNE, SNO, SNP, TVAS, NHL.TV).

As special as it was for them watching the Maple Leafs practice, being a part of the National anthem is most impactful to all of them.

"Once I joined the military, the first time you hear the National anthem at a sporting event, you get every single word, you listen to every single word of it," Smith said. "To me, it means a lot. Every game when we're playing too, it's about taking the time to reflect on what people are giving back to this country and where we are today."

Added Burke, 22: "I know there's a lot of stuff going on with the flag, but we render honors every morning and every night, so it means the world to us. Especially with the anniversary of Iwo Jima going on, that's the biggest thing, that image. Especially with us going into the Marine Corps, that just means everything."


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Massman, Smith and Burke are all set to join the United States Marine Corps upon graduation from the Naval Academy. That's why they were all wearing their Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform when they watched practice.

But as they watched the Maple Leafs go through the paces of a regular practice, they were basically star struck fans.

None claim to be a Maple Leafs fan -- Massman is from Detroit, Smith is from Pittsburgh, and Burke is from Worcester, Massachusetts -- but they're all hockey nuts.

"Seeing these guys, it's really cool and it's special to have them here," Massman, 22, said.

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"In the past, we've had the Capitals come and the Islanders come for practices. They've toured the yard with us and ate lunch with us and just got to know us. It's pretty humbling knowing that we have NHL players, heroes to a bunch of people, coming here and talking to us, asking what we do, how our day is, very interested in our lives. It's a pretty cool experience."

Babcock chuckled when he was told of Massman's comment, particularly the heroes part.

"I think he's got that reversed," Babcock said.

"I think we know who the real heroes are," added Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk.

Babcock proudly met some of the midshipmen players Friday.

"It was fantastic," he said.

Babcock said he spoke to them about a range of topics, from how many times a week they practice to what they're doing next to how to become an officer when you graduate to where they're from and, finally, about Babcock's son, Michael, who plays at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

"We talked about what you would talk about with anybody," Babcock said. "You think about heroes, there's lots of different heroes in your lifetime, but people that put themselves in harm's way to look after you, those are the heroes. I think that's important that we understand that and we recognize that."

On Friday, though, Massman, Smith and Burke saw themselves as hockey players and fans who see a commonality between them and the NHL players.

"It's a mutual respect because we both see something that we like in the other ones and we're both trying to do something," Massman said. "They're trying to lead a bunch of younger fans who are watching them, growing up, trying to play hockey and be where they are. We're hopefully going to go out and lead sailors and marines in the future.

"We also want to play hockey, and they're doing that."

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