Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Know Your Enemy: Army

For almost a decade, today's profiled program was the only Atlantic Hockey team that the Engineers were willing to travel to - in part because of the relative closeness, but also in part because of the history of the program. Although the United States Military Academy doesn't exactly have a trophy case that's overflowing with glories on the ice, they're a program that long ago has earned the respect of the college hockey world for turning out professionals who keep our country free.

Nickname: Black Knights
Location: West Point, NY
Founded: 1802
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Brian Riley (8th season)
2010-11 Record: 11-20-4 (10-13-4 AHA, 9th place)
Series: RPI leads 31-15-2
First Game: February 9, 1907 (West Point, NY)
Last RPI win: October 19, 2007 (West Point, NY)
Last USMA win: October 31, 2009 (Troy, NY)

2011-12 game: December 30, 2011 (Storrs, CT) - potential

Key players: D Marcel Alvarez, sr.; F Danny Colvin, sr.; D Mark Dube, sr.; F Mike Hull, sr.; F Bryant Skarda, sr.; G Ryan Leets, jr.; F Andy Starczewski, jr.; D Cheyne Rocha, jr.; F Mike Santee, jr.; D Dax Lauwers, so.; F Zak Zaremba, fr.

One quick note on the key players: the juniors and sophomores are frequently subject to change, as there is a certain amount of attrition at the service academies due to a number of personal reasons, frequently a reluctance to assume the military service responsibility incurred upon the start of the third year - the military life isn't for everyone, even those who believed when they arrived that it was what they want. For instance, RPI's Greg Burgdoerfer left Air Force after one year to transfer.

Organized sports have practically always been a part of the educational regimen at West Point, given the need for cadets to be physically fit to prepare for the rigors of battle. Hockey at the Academy dates back almost as far as it does at RPI, with the first games taking place on a flooded field known as "The Plain" in 1904, just a couple of years removed from the Engineers' first games in Cohoes and Albany. The difference in West Point, however, is that the Black Knights have competed on the ice in every single year since without a break in the program's history, even through both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and through today's conflicts, Army hockey has continued its traditions.

One of those traditions has usually included a yearly game with the Royal Military College of Canada, the first games of which were in part organized by famed General Douglas MacArthur while he was superintendent of West Point in the early 1920s. The two military academies met on the ice every year from 1923, but have not played each other since 2006.

But more than anything, there is one name that stands out in West Point as being synonymous with Army Hockey: Riley. This will be the 61st consecutive season that a Riley has been behind the Black Knights' bench, and it all began in 1951 with the legendary Jack Riley. Jack would stay in West Point until 1986, amassing what was at the time the second most victories in the history of college hockey. He amassed eight 20-win seasons during that stretch, which included a pair of stints in the ECAC. Perhaps most notably, Riley was the head coach for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, which won the country's first gold medal at the Squaw Valley Olympics and perhaps setting some motivation for the 1980 gold medal when he made 1980 head coach Herb Brooks his last cut from the 1960 team.

Army was a charter member of the original ECAC, tying with the Engineers for the fifth best winning percentage in the inaugural 1961-62 season, and finishing second overall behind Providence in 1964, going 17-4 against other ECAC teams in a 29-team league, the largest the conference would ever be. They fell to St. Lawrence at home in the one-and-done quarterfinals, however. The Cadets, as they were then known, hung around in the ECAC until 1972, when they left the conference to become independent after a pair of last place finishes, though they had typically been somewhere in the middle of the pack for much of their first tenure.

As an independent, the Cadets primarily played a schedule that consisted of Division III programs, and while records were frequently solid, the team didn't get NCAA looks because of that schedule quality. By the early 1980s, Army was regularly beating up on its opponents, as Jack Riley led the team to three consecutive 25-win seasons from 1982 to 1984.

Following the Hockey East split, the Cadets returned to the ECAC as the conference's 12th program, but they were in for a rude awakening as they eased back into a full Division I schedule. They played under a special arrangement that saw them play each conference foe only once (while every other team played home-and-home, as they do today), but in the first two seasons, Army went 2-20-0 in league play, including a 0-11-0 record in 1985 despite a winning overall record in both of those years. During a seven year stretch in the ECAC, the Cadets finished in last place or near last place, and the team left to become an independent again in 1991, their mantle as ECAC cellar dwellers taken for some time by Union, who replaced them.

Jack Riley left West Point in 1986 and was replaced by his son, Rob. As the team returned to the independent ranks, the schedule also lightened significantly as the Cadets played games against a wide variety of teams from D-I through D-III. It was part of a continuing cycle for Army - not strong enough to compete regularly in a Division I conference, which at the time were the "Big Four" of relatively equal strength, but fairly dominant over smaller schools in D-II and D-III.

In the late 1990s, that cycle was broken with the creation of the MAAC and the CHA through the demise of Division II. Army joined the CHA as a charter member in 1999, though they left after just one season for the MAAC in order to compete with teams closer to home.

The rise of the minor conferences allowed Army to have a full Division I schedule with other teams that struggled against the bigger conferences, but the Cadets - who became the Black Knights in 2001 - still had a tough time reaching the top in the MAAC and its successor conference, Atlantic Hockey. After five seasons in conference play, Rob Riley left to take a professional position, and he was replaced by his brother, Brian.

Under Brian Riley, the Black Knights slowly rose through the ranks of Atlantic Hockey, culminating in the team's first conference championship of any sort in 2008 when Army claimed the regular season championship with a 17-8-3 season in conference, just nudging out RIT - the only time the Tigers have not finished atop the AHA standings since they joined the conference. All eyes were on West Point as they appeared well positioned to fight for their first ever NCAA bid, potentially coming in an all-service academy final as they reached the semifinals alongside Air Force, but Mercyhurst pulled off a 4-2 upset to end the Black Knights' national tournament dreams. The team hasn't won an AHA playoff game since.

There's no denying that it's difficult to recruit at Army - top players will certainly shy away from the school because it includes the assumption of a difficult responsibility if one makes a college career there. They also are limited almost entirely to American players; although international cadets do study and train at West Point, they are limited in number. Those two items make it difficult for Army to succeed on the ice, but they've had their share of success stories. Dan Hinote played two years for Army, expecting to eventually join the FBI but recommitting to hockey after his play for the Cadets got him noticed by the NHL. He was the first Cadet ever drafted and won a Stanley Cup in 2001.

And, of course, there are heroes off the ice as well. Frederick and Joseph Tate were brothers who played for West Point, both giving their lives for their country in World War II, and their name adorns the school's ice arena, Tate Rink. Derek Hines was captain of the Black Knights in 2003, as a first lieutenant in Afghanistan, he also laid down his life for his nation. The NCAA now honors Hines with a national award - one of only three for players - given to the "unsung hero." These men gave the ultimate sacrifice, but each and every man who goes through four years of hockey at West Point, especially today in a time of war, serves their country with distinction as well.

Army doesn't always have the most talented team, but with the Rileys, you know you're going to get a hard-nosed, physical game. Thanks in part to the rigorous physical training regimen expected of all cadets, the Black Knights never have a problem playing 60 minutes of tough hockey and if you let up even for a few moments (as the Engineers found in their last game against the Academy) they'll make you pay. However, a talented team which plays hard usually should be able to pick up a win.

They don't score a lot of goals - Dube returns as the top goal scorer with just 13 last year, one of only two to reach 10. Colvin, Hull, Alvarez, and Skarda are also top scorers, all five will be seniors, giving the team a solid core of scoring leadership. In net, Leets is the presumptive starter after playing a second-choice role last season but putting up generally better numbers than graduated senior Jay Clark in the time he did see.

It's always fun to see what becomes of a game against Army. The usual obnoxious rhetoric from the RPI faithful is pretty much always toned down a bit in home games out of respect (although the band frequently plays a few bars from "Anchors Aweigh" and shouts "warm up the tanks"), and it's also one of the lesser RPI rivalries that goes back over 100 years as the two sides have met fairly frequently despite being in different conferences for much of their collective history. Whenever Army's on the schedule, a fun game is certainly in store no matter when or where the game's going to be.

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