Jan. 23, 2014
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
As much as he's delighted that what was once hockey's longest ongoing international series has been restored -- and as pleased as he is to be bringing his team to Kingston to renew it Saturday -- the annual game between Royal Military College and West Point will be bittersweet for Army coach Brian Riley.
"I was raised with this rivalry," said Riley, who was preceded as coach at the U.S. Military Academy by his father, Jack, and his brother, Rob, in a coaching dynasty that spans 63 years.
"As a kid growing up this was always a day that we circled on the calendar because it was such a big game.
"We used to always love it because Danny McLeod would be coming to stay at our house."
McLeod, RMC's first athletics director and for many years the college's varsity hockey coach, died last week at the age of 92.
"When the series stopped, he was one of the guys I was talking to," Riley said. "(He'd say), `We want to get this back on the rails.' Now here we are, going up there (for the first time since the series resumed), and he's not going to be there.
"It's really sad. I'm going to miss not seeing Danny, that's for sure."
The series, begun in 1923 when Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Maj. Gen. Sir Archibald MacDonell were the top officers at their respective academies, was last contested in Kingston in February, 2006. After that, friction between the two schools brought it to an acrimonious end.
In a bid to become more competitive in Ontario University Athletics, RMC recruited athletes who were part-time students and civilian reservists for the hockey team. It began to view the annual West Point game as a hindrance in the end-of-year playoff drive.
West Point believed the game should remain between cadets and though RMC's players were well within eligibility criteria in Canada, the Americans viewed using them in the game with Army as an affront to the spirit of the series.
Almost as soon as the game was cancelled work began behind the scenes to restore it, and the first game in the second coming of the exchange was played two years ago at West Point. The teams met again in New York last year and Saturday's game will be the first played in Kingston in seven years.
Both coaches, Riley and RMC's Adam Shell, believe the series actually benefitted from the hiatus.
"Talk to 12 different people and you'll have 12 different answers about what went wrong, who to blame and what was at the essence," Shell said. "When I got here and the talks (to bring it back) started it was about how it had become more than just a game. It was the war on ice. That's not what it's supposed to be about.
"It's supposed to be about good, solid hockey, two similar teams, two similar lifestyles, playing a game. Fierce? Yes. We want to win, but no garbage after whistle, no dirty play, no win-at-all-costs mentality.
"The hiatus hurt in some ways because it happened, but the game itself? I don't think it hurt."
Riley said the teams had lost respect for each other in games that had become too intensely played. "When you don't have respect," he said, "that's not a good thing.
"You can play somebody and want to beat the heck out of them for 60 minutes. We play Air Force and you try to beat the stuffing out of one another but then when the game is done you stand shoulder to shoulder and listen to the alma maters of each school and realize that, in reality, you're on the same team. That's the same with RMC and West Point. We are on the same team. I'm sure there have been times when former players have run into each other in foreign lands and been able to draw back on their experiences of being part of this series, which is a good thing.
"It's important to give our players the opportunity to be involved with something like this. This game and this series is bigger than any one individual."
It would appear that the teams share more than a philosophy of the game.
Army is 3-14 in conference play and in last place in Atlantic Hockey. They've given up more goals than anyone else in the league and only one team has scored fewer. Also the last-place team in its league, RMC, 1-18-3, has given up more goals than any team in the country, and only two teams have scored fewer.
"We're young," said Riley, whose team has just one senior. "Obviously we've struggled this year (but) the good news for us is a lot of young guys are getting valuable experience.
"I think we're probably very similar to RMC in that we need to play a perfect game to win, because we're not this high powered offensive team. If we're going to win a game, it's going to be 3-2. If another team gets to four, that's not a good thing."
Shell said that to be successful both teams have to play the same kind of game -- "hold teams down, score when you can, and have a good penalty kill."
"They're generally a little thicker than we are, a little more physically strong. The area that always concerns me is the style of play in their league is different. U.S. college hockey is much more about speed and chasing and pressuring and going everywhere. Our game is fast but we're much more pro style, in the sense that it's structured, a little bit more systematic, a bit more about moving the puck to specific places.
"That's the thing that makes me nervous. Whose style is going to control the day?"
That's where the similarities end. West Point will play in playoffs this year; barring a run of Biblical proportions, RMC will not.
That puts this game in a bit of a different light for the two teams.
"I'm sure you've heard people who would say if you beat West Point you could go 0-28 (and no one would care)," Shell said. "Sure (beating West Point) is a feather in the cap for those who believe that and we can plant the flag and say we won the game.
"I'll be very happy but it won't make me feel any better about what's gone on this season."
Beyond the pride that goes with defeating a long-time rival, Riley said the outcome of Saturday's game isn't that significant in the grand scheme of the Army season.
"Maybe years ago, that was the intensity of the rivalry," he said. "Our goal is to be playing our best hockey in February. We'll use this as a great opportunity to play a tough team in a tough environment, which will hopefully be part of the process to make us a tougher team for whoever we have to play in the playoffs."
It's a fine line the coaches walk, at the same time respecting the tradition and fostering the spirit of a 91-year-old rivalry without taking the enthusiasm inherent in it beyond fervor to acrimony.
"On its face, it's two military academies (and since) the U.S. and Canadian military serve close together, these guys might serve together, they'll share a similar experience," Shell said. "There's America versus Canada, their college versus ours ... in essence, that's what it should be about.
"The hype then takes it to another level. It's the first game everybody asks about. Anybody who knows anything about the program asks me or (the players) about the game: When it wasn't being played, when's it coming back? Why it wasn't being played. It's a big deal ... it's what everything is built around.
"In some ways that's great. It's a flagship game for our program. It's something you can sell to recruits about a once-a-year experience that you're going to get, but in another sense it's just an exhibition game."
"I know it will be a great experience for our players to be up in Kingston. The atmosphere is always electric. Having their whole student body there, in their red coats, it will be an eye-opener for our players."