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Stadium Series to display pageantry in Annapolis

Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium brings proud tradition to first NHL outdoor game at service academy

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Each Friday morning, Vice Admiral Walter E. "Ted" Carter Jr. leaves behind his service dress blues, puts on a different kind of uniform and laces up his skates.

This weekly pickup game at McMullen Hockey Arena is how the U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent stays active in the sport he grew up playing in Burrillville, Rhode Island. Carter, 58, captained Navy's men's ice hockey club team as a senior in 1981 and was given the nickname Slapshot after taking a slap shot so weak that he was almost benched.

The playful moniker carried over to become his call sign when he was at the Navy Fighter Weapons School -- the flight training program commonly known as "Top Gun" -- and throughout his 37-year naval aviation career.

So imagine how Carter feels about Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium hosting the 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series between the Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SNE, SNO, SNP, TVAS, NHL.TV).

"I'm not just a player and have been on skates since I was 3 years old, but I'm also a fan," Carter said of the event, the first time a U.S. service academy will host an outdoor NHL game. "So to see an event like this happen here is almost like a dream come true. I'm like 7 years old all over again. They've been working on it for two years, so to see it finally come together is really exciting."

The League plans to hold the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and at Michie Stadium at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, in future seasons.

Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium usually is home to Navy's football and lacrosse teams. With a capacity of 34,000, it is smaller than most of the venues that host outdoor NHL games, but the tradition and pageantry of an event involving the Naval Academy midshipmen promise to make the atmosphere special.

"Many places that we go to are just big cities, big stadiums," said Steve Mayer, NHL executive vice president and chief content officer. "This is going to be a little more quaint and the stadium itself is smaller, but I think the way we'll make it look will be significant."

In this case, the ice rink will complement what the stadium symbolizes: a tribute to the men and women who have served in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps.

"You get a really good sense of the people who played before you here with all the history and tradition in it," said Robert Lindsey, a senior offensive lineman on Navy's football team. "It's a special place. It's definitely not the biggest stadium, but it has a good homey vibe. It's a good place to play in."

***

On the wall near Gate C is a dedication plaque, which was unveiled on Oct 8, 2005 before Navy's annual football game against Air Force.

The plaque reads: "This stadium is dedicated to those who have served and will serve as upholders of the traditions and renown of the Navy and Marine Corps of the United States. May it be a perpetual reminder that the Navy and Marine Corps are organizations of men trained to live nobly and serve courageously in peace, champions of our integrity; in war, defenders of our freedom."

For Commander Henry Lamont Gourdine, the deputy director of athletics military affairs at the Naval Academy, the plaque and the stadium provide a reminder of comrades lost.

While giving a stadium tour, Gourdine, who served as a helicopter pilot and was deployed during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, notes three in particular who graduated from the Naval Academy with him in 1995: Major Douglas Zembiec, Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen and Major Megan McClung.

"She was the first female Marine Corps officer killed in combat in Iraq," Gourdine said of McLung.

McLung was serving as a public affairs officer in the Al Anbar Province when an improvised explosive device (IED) destroyed her Humvee, instantly killing her and two others on Dec. 6, 2006. She was 34. 

Zembiec was also 34 when he was killed by small arms fire while serving in the CIA's Special Activities Division while leading a raid in Baghdad on May 11, 2007. Kristensen was serving in the U.S. Navy SEALs when his helicopter was shot down during a search and rescue mission in Afghanistan on June 28, 2005. He was 33.

That the stadium is a memorial to them and others in the Navy and Marine Corps is not forgotten by those who call it home.

"This is a special place that represents our country and those who have served and who make this country great," Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Our kids recognize that it's called the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for a reason."

The stadium, which opened on Sept. 26, 1959, was funded by alumni, sailors, marines and friends of the Naval Academy. There are plaques commemorating the graduating classes that contributed to its construction, upkeep and renovations in Memorial Plaza at the north end of the stadium and on either side of Alumni Arch at the south end.

Jack Stephens Field is named for Jack Stephens, a 1947 graduate who made a $10 million donation toward the stadium renovations in 2003. In the stands, there are chairback memorial plates dedicated to individuals who served or are currently serving in the Navy or Marine Corps. 

The stadium's battle arches tell the stories of each battle involving the Navy and Marine Corps. They are color coded so visitors can view them in chronological order. 

The battles are also listed on the stadium façade.

"You go to some stadiums and they've got the bowls that you played in or national championships or different hall of fame people around their bowls," Niumatalolo said. "Here, you have battles."

Legend has it that when College Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz was coaching William & Mary in a game here in the 1960s, he looked up at the battles listed on the façade such as Anzio, Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Normandy and told his players, "Now, that's a tough schedule."

Gourdine, a two-time letterman on the Navy football team, is looking forward to having those in the hockey world learn what the stadium and the Naval Academy are about. It will also be his first time attending an NHL game.

"I think it's awesome," he said. "I've seen a minor-league game, but I've never had a chance to go to a Capitals game. I figure since they're coming here, [he'll go]."

***

When exiting their locker room at McMullen Hockey Arena, players on Navy's men's hockey team pass two walls plastered with photos of Naval Academy alumni who were killed in action. Prior to each home game, assistant coach and team officer representative Major John Naughton tells the story of one of those players for inspiration.

Though hockey is not a varsity sport at Navy, everything about their facility, named for 1940 Naval Academy graduate and former New Jersey Devils owner John McMullen, is at the level for a Division I NCAA program -- from the Olympic-sized rink to the trainers' and weight room, to the locker rooms. Coach Kevin Rooney believes some of his players are good enough to play at the next level, but they have a higher calling awaiting when they graduate.

"These guys could all play somewhere after this, but they'll be in a jet, they'll be in a sub, they'll be in a field of battle," Rooney said.

Rooney said he has 25 leaders on his team, reflective of any individual who would gain admission into the Naval Academy. Senior forward John Linenger is the son of astronaut Jerry Linenger. Junior forward Alex Vandenberg went to the State of the Union address this year as the guest of U.S. Representative Randy Hultgren of Illinois.

"These guys are 3.8 (grade-point average) and up, plus National Honor Society, plus community [service], plus congressional nominations," Rooney said. "So, they're leaders when they get here."

When the players heard last May about the NHL Stadium Series coming to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, they hoped they'd get to play a game there, but there were schedule conflicts. They're happy to play any role Saturday, however.

About 50 midshipmen from the men's Division I and II club teams and the women's club team will be on the ice to unfurl the U.S. and Canadian flags for the singing of the U.S. and Canadian National Anthems. 

"Hopefully, a lot of people will be out there," Linenger said. "I know that everyone at the academy is really excited about it."

Vandenberg, who is from Sugar Grove, Illinois, attended the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field. He also was at Soldier Field for the 2014 Coors Light Stadium Series game between the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins.

"We had some nosebleed seats. We couldn't really see much," Vandenberg said. "Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, I think it's a perfect size for an outdoor game."

The midshipmen hope this game will bring attention to the stadium, academy and Annapolis, and help grow hockey in the area.

"The hockey community has been getting bigger," senior forward Hyo Jun Baek said. "We work with the Learn to Play program here and you see a lot of kids come out and they really start to get into the game. With the Capitals being pretty close by, that's helped out a lot. Hopefully, our program being here has helped out, too."

***

The Capitals are no strangers to the Naval Academy. They've visited here on multiple occasions for team-building exercises, including training camp in 2014. 

Defensemen John Carlson and Matt Niskanen received a tour of the stadium before Navy's football game against SMU on Nov. 11, and got a taste of what the game-day experience will be like. Niskanen is thrilled about being a part of Saturday's event.

"It might not mean as much to people that aren't American, but to us it's a going to mean a lot," he said. "It will be a cool storyline."

For a football game, the Brigade of Midshipmen, a 4,000-plus student body, marches into the stadium through the south tunnel about 20 minutes before kickoff, and lines up on the field for the national anthem. This won't be possible Saturday because the field will be transformed to look like an aircraft carrier with an ice rink on its flight deck. 

Of the approximately 500 midshipmen expected to attend, 200 will march in before the Capitals and Maple Leafs take the ice and "man the rails" on the aircraft carrier. 

Because the game will be between teams from the United States and Canada, there will also be a Canadian military presence. The presentation of colors will feature eight members of the U.S. Joint Services Color Guard carrying the American flag joined by a member of the Royal Canadian Navy carrying the Canadian flag.

"We thought about the opponent for Washington and wanted absolutely to have a Canadian team, so we can combine efforts," Mayer said. "So, even though we are in the home of the U.S. Navy, we're going to definitely mix the two."

The Canadian national anthem will be performed by petty officer second class Brad Davidge, accompanied by the brass ensemble from the Stadacona Band of the Royal Canadian Navy. Midshipman second class Lael Sommer and the Naval Academy Band will perform the "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the 87th anniversary of it being designated as the national anthem under President Herbert Hoover. 

Video: 2018 Stadium Series time-lapse in Annapolis, Maryland

The pregame festivities will conclude with a flyover featuring two Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets from the World Famous Fighting Black Lions based out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Chances are the opening sequence from the 1986 film "Top Gun," which contains footage of Navy jets taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier, will be played at some point on the video boards at each end of the stadium, as it is before each football game.

It happens to be a favorite of the superintendent.

"I won't take any credit for it," Carter said. "I'll just say it's not a mistake."

 

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