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NHL Stadium Series

'Fighting Blacklions' will enjoy special moment at NHL Stadium Series

Pilots performing flyover are avid hockey fans

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Twenty years ago, Patrick Baker was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was also a goalie on Navy's club hockey team and a Washington Capitals fan from Silver Spring, Maryland.

While he trained aboard a destroyer, the Capitals played the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final.

"I had to ask for permission," Baker said. " 'Can I change the radio station to this so I can listen to the game?'"

 

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Now Baker is a commander in the U.S. Navy and the executive officer of Strike Fighter Squadron 213, the "World Famous Fighting Blacklions," based out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

He'll be part of the flyover of two Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets before the Capitals play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SNE, SNO, SNP, TVAS, NHL.TV).

Video: Fighting Black Lions discuss how to do a fly over

It will be a special and surreal moment for Baker and three fellow Blacklions -- each a hockey fan, each a combat veteran. The stadium has been decorated so the rink looks like it is atop the deck of an aircraft carrier.

"This is a cool way to demonstrate naval aviation to the general public and hopefully inspire kids," Baker said. "I know when I saw jets flying over, I thought, 'That's the coolest thing ever. That's what I want to do.'"

Lieutenant Jon-Bernard Pro will fly the lead aircraft. He's from Kansas City, Kansas. If he had to pick a team, it would be the St. Louis Blues. Baker will sit behind him in the two-seat fighter as the weapons systems officer.

Lieutenant Andrew Wolfe will fly the wing aircraft. He's a Naval Academy alumnus and a Pittsburgh Penguins fan from Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He roamed the stadium for three football seasons as Bill the Goat, Navy's mascot. His weapons systems officer will be Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey Sweitzer, a Red Wings fan from Troy, Michigan.

This might not seem like much of a demonstration. How many times have you seen a flyover before a sporting event, either in person or on TV? The planes whoosh past. In a second or two, they're gone.

The model deck of the aircraft carrier at the stadium is about 370 feet long. The deck of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush -- on which the Blacklions sailed to the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf from January to August last year -- is 1,089 feet long.

The stadium is stationary. The George H.W. Bush would be moving forward and up and down in the waves, and the Blacklions might be coming back from a seven-hour mission in the dark with no moon and an overcast sky.

"There's just a little string of lights out off in the distance," Pro said. "And sometimes if there's clouds out, you're not going to see that until you get in close anyways."

But this might help people appreciate what the Blacklions do: When they land on a real aircraft carrier, they have to touch down in an area smaller than the size of 200-foot-by-85-foot NHL rink. At 150 miles per hour.

The George H.W. Bush has three wires; the pilot aims his tailhook for the middle wire. (Some carriers have four wires and the pilot aims for the third.) The wires are about 40 feet apart.

Imagine the blue line, red line and blue line are the three wires. They're 25 feet apart, not 40, but close enough to get the idea.

If the Blacklions were landing inside the stadium, they would try to catch their tailhooks on the red line.

"Between the face-off dots," Baker said. "You don't even get the whole red line. The landing area is about 70 feet [wide] so we have a little leeway, but not too much. … You're talking not a lot of room, and these guys do it on a day-in, day-out basis, consistently."

The Blacklions are like professional athletes in a lot of ways: in shape, highly skilled, well trained, the best at what they do.

After college, they go to flight school for 1 1/2 to 2 years to earn their wings of gold. After that, they are chosen for a certain type of aircraft and spend another 1 to 1 1/2 years learning to fly it. Only then do they get to their first fleet squadron. Once there, they practice most every day when not deployed, flying 1- to 1-1/2- hour training missions.

"It doesn't matter if you're the old guy or the new guy, there's a set standard that we have to execute in the air, and that all requires continuous practice," Baker said. "So when we're not on deployment, when we're not flying on the pointy end of the spear off the aircraft carrier, we're back at Oceana flying. We're always continually practicing, whether it's air-to-air missions or air-to-ground missions, so we're always ready."

They often have to follow hockey from afar. In 2009, Sweitzer watched the Red Wings play the Penguins in the Final in the ready room of an aircraft carrier somewhere in the western Pacific. Last year, Baker was tormented via email by friends back home as the Capitals lost to the Penguins in seven games in the Eastern Conference Second Round.

But Saturday, the NHL will come to them, and everyone -- fans, coaches, players -- will look up to them in more ways than one.

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