LIGHTNING COLLEGE HOCKEY CLASSIC: ARMY BLACK KNIGHTS
tbl.commentator Melanie Formentin
Although the Army Black Knights get to face off against the 11th ranked Notre Dame hockey team for their first game at the St. Pete Times Forum, it would be foolish to think that they aren't prepared for the challenge.
The Black Knights enter this weekend's inaugural Lightning College Hockey Classic in the midst of their best start in 30 years. Undefeated through their first four games, Army ranks among the nation's Top 10 in four different team categories.
While this season's accomplishments seem impressive thus far, it is the history of Army's hockey team that is truly remarkable.
As the third oldest hockey program in the NCAA, the Army Black Knights have 103 seasons of history under their belts. Last season they became just the thirteenth school to reach 1000 career wins, and they currently rank 13th on the NCAA's wins list with 1014 total victories.
Then there is the Riley family who has produced the last three head coaches for Army dating back to 1951. Starting with the legendary Jack Riley, coach of the 1960 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic Team and two-time Lester Patrick Award winner, the tradition has been passed down to two sons.
Rob Riley shares the record for the winningest father-son combination in college hockey history with his father, Jack, as the two have amassed a total of 848 wins. When Rob stepped down from the coaching position in 2004, it was his younger brother Brian Riley who moved in after spending 14 years as an assistant coach for the Black Knights.
Coach Brian Riley has already made waves in the Atlantic Hockey Association Conference (AHA), winning the league's 2006 Coach of the Year award.
For Army, the weekend tournament provides a number of opportunities. Aside from having the chance to build upon their recent successes against a top-ranked team such as Notre Dame, it also allows the Black Knights to showcase their program and a bit of their history.
"The chance to come down and expose our program to an area where they don't see much college hockey is a great opportunity for us to hopefully let people know about our program, which is one of the oldest programs in college hockey," said Riley. "Most importantly it's a chance to showcase our young men who will come down there and play in a way that will make everybody proud of the type of young people we have here at West Point. I think people will feel really proud after they watch how our guys compete."
Considering the history of the team, it's understandable that pride is a major theme that runs through the Army locker room.
When Riley talks about being proud, it's obvious that his feelings extend beyond those associated with the coaching history and the age of the program. It also applies to the sense of pride that the young servicemen feel as members of the United States Military Academy. For Army, the chance to play in a city with a great number of military personnel is something special.
"An opportunity to be in a tournament with a field that includes Notre Dame, Air Force and Alabama-Huntsville is very exciting for us," said Riley. "Plus the fact, [we are] able to come down to Tampa and play in an NHL facility, [and] there are a lot of military people in that area. The chance to bring the Army Hockey Team down there and play in front of current/active military as well as retired military folks will be a great experience for us."
In addition to playing in front of various military members, the excitement of playing games outside of their normal league gives the young Army team a chance to gain valuable experience.
With only three seniors on their roster, the Black Knights are a team that can take the experience from a tournament such as this one and use it to build momentum and confidence beyond just this season. That's not to suggest that they are setting their sights far into the future however, as there is still plenty of this season left to be played.
"I think that any time you step out of your league you want to have the opportunity to play against teams that will hopefully make you better as the season goes along," said Riley. "We certainly feel this field will help us achieve that goal of being a better team. I think it's important to come down there and hopefully play well against those teams. That will go a long way in helping us be a better team when we get back into our league play the following weekend."
With strong coaching experience and a long-standing program behind them, the Black Knights carry a deep sense of pride into the College Hockey Classic. They look forward to the chance to build upon their history against old rivals and the 11th ranked team in the nation.
Having jumped out to a 3-0-1 start, Army appears to have put themselves in a strong position to accomplish their goals and gain good experience regardless of the results of the tournament.