View From Section U: On, Brave Old Army Team

It would be easy to look at Army, Friday’s opponent, as just another non-conference visitor coming into the Bill.  More Atlantic Hockey fodder for the UMass hockey team to beat (hopefully) and move on to a looming conference tilt with UNH.  But it’s important to realize that this collection of college hockey players coming into the Bill on Friday aren’t like any other team.  For the Minutemen players when their UMass careers are over some will go into professional hockey, perhaps even make it to the NHL.  Others will take their college degrees and look for success in business, or medicine, or wherever their careers lead them.  The Army players however, like those wearing Air Force on the front of their hockey sweaters out in Colorado Springs, have a different destiny after college.

After last year’s struggles with inconsistency and the now all too familiar late season flop, Coach Cahoon infamously said he wanted to install a Navy Seal-like atmosphere around the program, making his players tougher mentally and physically.  It made for a great metaphor, one I appreciated as a fan, and so far indications are he has made strides towards doing as he wished.  But for Friday’s visitors every hour of every day is like being an Navy Seal.  Actually, saying such a thing could likely get me shot.  No, for them everyday is like being an Army Ranger.  After all, the Black Knight players will go on to be Rangers, or Airborne, or serve in some other capacity in the Army.

Back in 2005 UMass football played Army at Michie Stadium.  The actual football game, which UMass narrowly lost, was only part of what made the day special.  The other half is the entire pagentry of gameday at West Point; from the military parade in the morning, to the howitzers going off when Army scores, to the fatigue-clad cadets proudly cheering on their team.  Of course being the hardcore college hockey fans that we are, some friends and I decided to hang around that night and watch the Army hockey team take on rival Air Force at Tate Rink. 

When we got to our seats high above the ice it was impossible not to see the letters “DH” and the American flag flanking both sides of center ice.  The letters stood for Derek Hines.  Hines was a Massachusetts kid from Newburyport, played hockey at St John’s Prep in Danvers, and went on to become captain of the Army hockey team.  And just two months before the game I attended he had been killed in action in Afghanistan.  ESPN wrote a powerful story on Hines and his legacy at Army.  Today, college hockey’s Unsung Hero award is named after Hines and is awarded to the Division I player who most exemplifies Hines’ spirit and relentless committment.  During the course of the game Hines’ initials continued to stare up from the ice as Army and Air Force battled, a constant reminder that we weren’t in a typical college campus watching a typical college hockey game.  Unfortunately I’ve followed college sports long enough to see other former players memoralized when tragedy strikes and lives are lost too soon.  But this felt very different than those instances.

The game was an exiciting one with Army getting out to a 3-0 lead in a very physical affair. Air Force scored three in the third period to tie things up at the end of the regulation, but the Black Knights ended up puting home the game-winner to too far into overtime.  An unusual thing, to me at least, happened after the game however.  After the traditional handshake that is a part of all college hockey games, the teams didn’t leave the ice.  In fact, these teams, which accumulated 16 total penalties against each other, lined up interspered along the blue line side by side with their captains doing the same in front of them at center ice.  There, standing at attention, they respectfully listened as both alma maters were played in the arena.  Foes just minutes before, now united by a common bond and a common sacrifice, shoulder to shoulder.  When the songs had ended Air Force skated off the ice to the locker room, but the Army team stayed behind.  Helmets off, together they skated to the center of the rink, made a circle around one of the sets of Hines’ initials, and knelt.  There, their captain spoke to them, at times emphatically gesturing to the letters on the ice.  I’m not going to presume to know what he was saying to his team, but perhaps it was something about the spirit and commitment of their former captain, the traits now honored with the award bearing his name.

In that moment I fully realized just how different these college student athletes in front of me were from the countless others I had seen perform in arenas and stadiums previously.   And in that moment I instantly became a lifelong fan of the service academies in college athletics.  I’m looking forward to welcoming and honoring one of those teams at the Mullins Center on Friday.

On, brave old Army team.

The Army hockey team gathers around Derek Hines' initials on the Tate Rink ice. (photo by Chris Ward)


I think I said Monday that Darren Rowe had a good chance to gain some monthly Hockey East accolades.  I was wrong.  Mike Pereira was one of the runner-ups for Rookie of the Month though.

Hockey East did highlight Rowe in this week’s Five Minute Major feature however.