Inside the Falcons’ nest: 30 hours with the Air Force hockey team

The Air Force starters wait for their name to be called before a game against Arizona State.

This is the first of a series of behind-the-scenes stories on the Air Force hockey team this season. The Flight Path would like to thank the coaches, players and staff for their assistance and for the access.

The setting for Oct. 13-14

When you walk through the Cadet Arena concourses you see the tributes to the four All-Americans, three Hobey Baker finalists, eight championship trophies, six championship rings and all of the teams in the 50-year hockey history of the Air Force Academy.

Underneath the stands in the halls weaving past coaches’ offices, the locker room and various nooks and crannies dedicated to everything from equipment storage to skate sharpening to snacks, you see more. The walls are lined with photos of the Falcons’ all-time greats (27 of them), all-conference and all-tournament team members (36 more) and 13 team photos of regular-season and conference tournament championships teams.

Outside the skate sharpening room there is another photo of former Falcons goaltender Mike Polidor (Class of 2004), an F-15 pilot who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, given to any officer or enlisted man who distinguishes himself or herself in support of operations by “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight, subsequent to Nov. 11, 1918.” Capt. Polidor in 2011 also won the Colonel James Jabara Award, given by each year by the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Association of Graduates to an Academy graduate or graduates whose airmanship contributions are of great significance and set them apart from their contemporaries. Polidor coordinated an effort in Afghanistan that saved the lives of at least 60 soldiers.

Then there is a photo of Mark Manney (1984), who piloted Air Force One for six years during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Presidential administrations. Manny now coaches hockey at Andover High School in Minnesota.

The jerseys, gear and locker room music have all changed over the past 50 seasons of Division I hockey at the Academy, but one thing hasn’t – the intense pride of playing hockey for the United States Air Force Academy.

No one has to say it, but it’s omnipresent, especially on this second weekend in October, when the current Falcons will have more than 70 living, breathing examples of that following them during a pair of non-conference games against Arizona State.

It’s alumni weekend, and nearly a quarter of the 350 Air Force hockey alumni are back at the Academy to reconnect with each other and with a program and memories they hold dear.

Coach Frank Serratore addresses the Air Force hockey alumni group that has returned to campus, more than 70 strong out of 350 total former AFA players.

The Friday buildup

Two hours before the scheduled 7:05 p.m. face-off the players arrive in waves, a Falcons forecheck on Cadet Arena in suits and ties. Their mood is generally light, and why wouldn’t it be? They’re fresh off a nap or at least three-plus hours of quiet time, a mid-day meal hours in the rear-view mirror.

It might surprise you to know this run-up to the game is nearly exclusively their time, and what they do with it is as unique as the 21 personalities who will fill out Friday’s lineup.

Some are chatty, some are quiet and want nothing more than to go off somewhere and listen to music. Some are hungry and retrieve a snack. At this point the talk is more about the new varieties of bagels and how well they’ll mesh with peanut butter, or which fruit is preferred. And there is hydration, lots of that. It is nearly impossible to run into a player without water or some electrolyte-infused concoction. Playing hockey at the NCAA level demands it. Playing at altitude (the Academy rests at 7,258 feet) makes it doubly important.

This early in the evening, the only place you’ll find a coach is on the walls of the corridor leading to the locker room.

You learn assistant coach Joe Doyle, who has 20 seasons of active duty on his resume, is on the wall of the program’s greats. The 1989 graduate was a better than point-per-game player (126 in 110 games) and the team MVP his junior and senior years. His class also was the first one in program history to have four winning seasons. From there, the major joined USA Hockey in 2009 and undertook a nearly thankless task of spreading the hockey gospel from everywhere from Texas to Alaska as a regional director for the governing body’s American Development Model program. When coach Frank Serratore called with an opening in 2013, he answered for his third tour as a Falcons assistant (1994-98, 2002-06 were the others). It’s a perfect fit for a man who had dedicated 24 years of his life (or more than half of it at the time) to Academy and country.

You learn fellow assistant Andy Berg couldn’t go through a season without winning an award. In 2000, he was College Hockey America’s freshman of the year and an all-rookie team member. In 2001, he was a second-team all-CHA selection. In 2002, he made CHA’s all-tournament team. And in 2003, he was an all-CHA pick again after his 40-point season led the Falcons. A two-time captain, he also scored at better than a point-per-game clip (142 in 140 games) before serving seven years of active duty. He’s tied for 13th in scoring all-time at the Academy.

Capt. Paul Weisgarber, a graduate assistant, was another hockey captain who is now back at the Academy as an instructor. He was one of only three players in school history to win three of the team’s major awards in one season when he earned the Heyliger, the Cronk and the Bowman awards after the 2010-11 season. For good measure, he did it again the next season. He’s still the only Falcon to win six major team awards, and his class is the most decorated in Falcons history, having won two regular-season championships and three playoff championships and reaching the NCAA Tournament three times.

The general of this operation, head coach Frank Serratore, was a goaltender at Western Michigan and Bemidji State before going behind the bench. His coaching resume spans three and a half decades – 21 seasons at the Academy – and includes stops in juniors, the International Hockey League and of course NCAA Division I. He didn’t build Cadet Arena, but his teams have decorated it.

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By 5:45 p.m. the sticks have been taped and the snacks eaten. It’s time for the team warm-up, a dynamic stretching routine that takes place on the infield of the indoor track under the supervision of strength and conditioning coach Drew Bodette.

During this time coaches arrive one by one. When there is discussion it’s generally light – with what you did that afternoon being a popular topic (working out, walking the dog). There is a brief review of what they’re going to say to the team – tonight’s focus will be on special teams and combinations of players for various situations. But this is a review. The preparation for Friday’s game has been done.

After their off-ice warm-up, the 21 players (a number that includes three goalies) who will dress for the game return to the locker room to gear up for the on-ice warm-up, and they’ll take it in style by sporting special warm-up jerseys to commemorate the program’s 50th season.

Approximately 38 minutes before the scheduled 7:05 p.m. face-off the Falcons hit the ice for their warm-up. When one stands in the tunnel after the players take the ice you realize the volume of the warm-up music does a pretty good job blocking just about all of the background noise. After 15 minutes or so, the players return to the locker room. Some stretch, most hydrate, all will change into throwback jerseys with USAFA stiched diagonally across the front, representing the first seasons of Air Force hockey. If replicas of these go on sale in the team store, you can bet the Flight Path wallet will be standing at attention.

Assistant coach Joe Doyle makes a point to the Falcons moments before they take the ice. Photo by The Flight Path

The coaching staff’s discussion with the players is brief, mainly in the form of bullet points (play as a group of five, have a net-front presence) and a short motivational speech (don’t get outworked). All of the players but the starting six skate out. The goalie, two defensemen and three forwards are introduced individually. All six are upper classmen and four are seniors. Those four seniors all wear a letter – defensemen Dylan Abood and Phil Boje and forwards Erik Baskin and Tyler Ledford. Home opener, alumni weekend. Coincidence?

Game on

Arizona State comes into the game 1-1 after splitting a home series with a resurgent UMass-Amherst program. The Sun Devils are trying to find their footing in their third season of Division I existence, and one thing is certain, this is a bigger, more skilled version of them than the one the Falcons split with in Arizona a year ago.

The game starts promisingly enough, with senior Ben Kucera netting a power-play goal little more than 2 minutes in. Kyle Haak makes it 2-0 by following his own shot from the right circle and scoring. A defensive breakdown allows the Sun Devils to pull to one when a player breaks in alone on Billy Christopoulos and scores late in the first period.

The Falcons build their lead to 4-1 by the second intermission as Baskin and Abood net goals. Full speed ahead, right?

Not so fast, Arizona State comes out determined in the third period and turns the tide in the latter half of the period, when it scores twice, the second time with 5 minutes left, to make it 4-3. Christopoulos, a junior who played sparingly his first two seasons due to the emergence of Shane Starrett, comes up big saves on a breakaway and another defensive breakdown.

The Falcons escape with a win, but the celebration is muted. After the game, Serratore talks about the team’s “self-inflicted wounds from players who should have known better.” Christopoulos’ play “has been encouraging.” And on this night, necessary.

Concurrently, the players go through a cool-down stretch and icing before heading off to a team meal inside the bowels of the field house. From there, it’s time to wind down and get a good night’s rest.

Meanwhile, the coaches go to study hall, film study hall. All things considered, it wasn’t a late night at all, Berg says, adding they were on their way home before midnight, two and half hours after the game ended.

The coaches’ meeting

The most fascinating portion of the weekend, aside from the games, is the Saturday morning coaches meeting, which includes Serratore, Doyle, Berg, Weisgarber and Director of Hockey Corey Millen. Millen is in his first season at the Academy, but his hockey resume is as deep as anyone’s who has set foot in Cadet Arena. One of the greatest players in the University of Minnesota’s history, Millen fashioned a lengthy pro career in the NHL, minors and Europe and skated for Team USA in the 1984 and ’88 Olympic Games. He’s coached in juniors and at Minnesota.

The meeting leaves no stone unturned, and the amount of attention to detail is mind-blowing to an outsider. The point is made that the Falcons played reasonably well for 50 minutes and poorly for the last 10, which is where the bad taste in everyone’s mouth comes from. Do the coaches stress the good 50 minutes or the bad 10? How do they balance it out?

The subject of game management, knowing the situation you’re in, comes up again and again. So does the question of how to approach this with the players.

When coach Frank Serratore and his staff address the team on Saturday they’re aware they’re dealing with a range of emotions in the room after the Falcons nearly blew a three-goal lead Friday night.

There also are decisions to make on the lineup. Do some players who sat Friday get a chance to play Saturday? Are the line combinations and D pairings working? This is discussed in pain-staking detail, and any decision that is made comes with healthy debate. For example, the staff strongly believes it has eight capable defensemen and the margin between Nos. 5 to 8 is very slim. Each offers different strengths and weaknesses. This is a peril of having a deep team, which Air Force does this season: even lineup decisions aren’t easy.

Up front, the forward lines are a work in progress. Friday’s news that junior jack-of-all-trades center Evan Feno will miss the rest of the season because of a torn ACL, coupled with news that fellow junior Matt Serratore has been diagnosed with a concussion, not a neck injury, is as Berg says, “Huge losses.” Each player has a strong all-around game and is defensively responsible. Their absence was felt acutely at crunch time on Friday. Later in the day during a break in his rehab routine, Serratore tells me he’s hopeful he can return for the following week’s series in his hometown of Bemidji, Minnesota. (He does and he scores in both games of the series split).

Before the season, the team’s upperclassmen went to Frank Serratore and said they wanted to accelerate the learning curve, meaning go for it from the get go. The coach explains that typically his teams begin to peak after the holiday break, and that was the case a season ago, when the Falcons picked up steam down the stretch and kept playing well all the way into the NCAA Tournament’s elite eight. The team wants to go back, and they don’t want to leave it to chance.

How many clips from Friday’s game should be shown to support teaching points? To show examples of things the Falcons did well? It’s a fine line the coaches are walking – too much correction and you run the risk of the players dwelling on Friday’s late-game meltdown. Not enough and you run the risk of giving the impression some of the mistakes are excusable.

All that remains is setting the lineup, and there are three changes, including two on defense. That discussion also is framed in terms of what is the team’s goal – win tonight’s game or further prepare the team for the season’s grind.

Andy Berg, left, and Joe Doyle emphasize teaching points as well as highlight things the Falcons did well in Friday’s game.

The team meeting

At 11:50, or roughly 90 minutes after the coaches arrived, the team is convened in the locker room for their briefing. The coaching staff asks various players for their thoughts on Friday’s game – a savvy approach and an excellent way to gauge the mood of the room. The players’ answers run the gamut from ticked off to relieved.

The film review ultimately focuses mostly on the Falcons’ strengths from the night before. The teaching points are specific and concise. It’s an open environment, where players are free to ask questions or offer clarifications, and a handful do. The desire to accelerate the process is discussed again.

At the end of the 25-minute meeting, the lineup changes are announced, and the affected defensemen are invited to Doyle’s office to speak with him about the moves.

At 12:15, those who play on the power play cram into Berg’s office for a brief review of what worked and what can be improved upon. As in the meeting at large, players are free to voice opinions or ask questions, and a handful of them do.

Those playing Saturday night head to a catered lunch at the Falcon Room. From there they will leave for a pregame nap. Saturday night’s scratches, meanwhile, gear up and hit the ice with Weisgarber for roughly an hour-long skate that features small-area games and drills designed to simulate game situations work on specific skills. Variety and pace are important to keep the players engaged.

A dynamic stretching session is a must before each game.

Game 2

The pregame routine for Saturday night’s game closely resembles Friday’s, with one notable difference. Doyle, Berg and Weisgarber, who played in that afternoon’s alumni game, join their peers for a picnic in the fieldhouse. Toward the end of that gathering, Serratore and Doyle address the group, thanking them for, among other things, their financial and moral support.

The game begins much the same as Friday’s, with the Falcons getting an early power-play goal, this time from Baskin off a nice cross-slot feed from Tyler Ledford just 1:08 into the game. This time, however, the Sun Devils answer just two minutes later.

The roar of the crowd seems a mile away just before the starting lineups are announced.

A much more physical contest takes another turn when Arizona State scores in the final minute of the first period for its first lead of the weekend. Last-minute and first-minute goals against can be devastating, and this one indicates things can go one of two ways for the Falcons, who have played well through 20 minutes.

Five minutes into the second period, freshman Max Harper, playing his first NCAA game, scores what would be his first college goal, but it’s waved off after a lengthy discussion between the officials.

To the Falcons’ credit, they are undeterred, and five minutes later Harper controls the puck below the goal line and finds linemate Pierce Pluemer alone in the slot, and the tallest Falcon (6-foot-4) wastes no time burying the chance and tying the score. Back and forth the momentum goes, broken only by a rush from Air Force defenseman Matt Koch, who steams down the left wing, goes around a Sun Devils defender and fires a shot upstairs and past goalie Joey Daccord, re-establishing the Falcons’ one-goal lead.

Frank Serratore likes to say today’s brand of college hockey is a skilled game of hand-to-hand combat, and if any period epitomizes that, it’s the third. Both teams have chances and both teams make excellent defensive plays. Both goalies are sharp. And both get some help. In the final five minutes, the Sun Devils hit a post on a shorthanded breakaway during a five-minute penalty kill, and the Falcons have another apparent goal waved off.

When the horn sounds, the Falcons have a victory, a sweep and a renewed sense of confidence after a hard-fought series.

“It’s probably the most complete game we’ve played all year,” Baskin said afterward. “As a group we’re pretty happy. … Definitely a different feeling going down the stretch with the lead tonight. Last night was just holding on for dear life, tonight we felt more in control out there.”

 

 

 

 

 

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