Brian Riley: Living his dream, helping others at West Point

Brian Riley is another coach in his family following in the footsteps of his father Jack coaching at the United States Military Academy. As he said of his recent win to give the family 1000 wins leading the Black Knights of the United States Military Academy “I know that I’m not a math guy but I know where I sit among them.” That is, in his ultimate humility, he recognizes that he still has a way to go to be the most winningest Riley, and some more work to do just to pass his brother Rob, his predecessor at West Point . Brian has been the leader of this program since 2004, and has been a constant leader on a campus with centuries of developing them.

`When Brian knew he wanted to be a coach, his dad Jack gave him the most important piece of advice that he carries with him, and instills as a philosophy in his staff and team at-large. Jack said, “Bri make sure show your players that you care for them more as people than as hockey players” That is Brian’s guiding star for coaching. Jack’s advice still rings true for Brian today. In all of his years coaching at West Point, he most cherishes the relationships he and his family have built with former players, assistants, and all of the unsung heroes that have made hockey at West Point reach a continued level of success, not only in on ice play, but in developing leaders of character that go on to lead the sons and daughters of America around the world.

A perfect example of the relationships Riley has throughout the hockey world sits on his bench as an associate head coach. When Zach McKelvie was playing for Riley, he had interest from the Boston Bruins. Former General Manager Peter Chiarelli, and his former assistant, Jim Benning, went to West Point and talked to Riley about him, and wanted to sign him upon completion of his senior year, to begin play right away. At the time, back in 2009 that was not possible, as Mckelvie had two years of active service to complete.

The Bruins waited two years for McKelvie, who completed his active duty requirements during that time. The ability of Riley to build that relationship, and of Zach to stay ready in those two years was impressive to see, to say the least. Now, Riley is thankful for the rise of the World Class Athlete Program, now common at all three Division One service academies. As every hockey player wants to play in the NHL, Riley realizes that this program allows him to expand his pitch to more servant leaders that are looking to play hockey professionally. He said, “it gives us the opportunity to tell young men that you can come to West Point and live that dream.”

In effect, this program allows athletes to sign professional contracts and fulfill their obligations where they sign, or delay them until their time playing professional hockey is done within some limits. West Point now has multiple graduates in this program, playing professional hockey in North America, including goaltender Parker Gahagen with the Colorado Eagles, and former captain Dominic Franco with the Rochester Americans.

The relationships built by Riley as part of his family’s decades of coaching in this game are consistently, for Brian, centered around West Point. He is living his dream every day coaching the Black Knights. When his dad, Jack, retired he said” I haven’t worked a day in 36 years.” Brian gets that and feels the same way. As he said, “personally for me I pinch myself that I am the head coach at West Point.” He did not realize it at the time he assumed the role in 2004, but Riley made clear that he is indeed at his dream job.

During his time coaching the game, Riley has built a relationship with so many of his colleagues, they extend far beyond on-ice competition. For example, when Riley’s father Jack passed away five years ago, Air Force Academy Coach Frank Serratore came across the country to be in the Cape Cod church where the funeral was held.

This special rivalry and relationship  Riley has with Serratore and Air Force is a thing to behold. Frank has let Riley address his players before games at times, and while the competition is fierce, the respect is even stronger. Riley notes that his and Serratore’s personality could not be more different, but values what Frank brings to this great game. He also praised the work Frank has done in representing Atlantic Hockey well when the Falcons have made the NCAA Tournament. Air Force was the first Atlantic Hockey team in a two year stretch to knock off the number one team in the tournament. Both times, Air Force, and then AIC beat St. Cloud State.

As Brian says of the Army-Air Force rivalry,  “ We try to beat the hell out of each other for 120 minutes, then we salute the fans together and line up shoulder to shoulder, seniors line up on the red line, everyone else lines up behind them. You really see guys that are going to be on the same team.“

Like in building relationships with coaches and players, Riley is one of the best in this game at building rapport with recruits. Due to the inherent limitations of recruiting at West Point, his staff has to, by definition, look at more leagues in this country than the USHL alone. A lot of his recruits come from the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL), especially teams in and around West Point, like the Jersey Hitmen, and South Shore Kings, to name a few.

Of recruiting, Riley says on its difficulty, “if I wanted to make an excuse I could say yes.” As a result of the rules of joining West Point, “When we go into a rink and watch a junior game… our pool is probably smaller than most.”  At West Point he went on to say that, “it’s like an Ivy League [school] regarding academics, and West Point is the preeminent leadership institution in the world.”

Riley looks forward to having on campus visits, in person, resume as that is one undeniable asset he has, allowing recruits to see the premier leadership institution in the world, amongst a beautiful backdrop, and nestled along the Hudson River, in person.

Finally, Riley noted the growth of his players this season, especially his outstanding first year class lead by Lincoln Hatten. He thought that he knew this group would be special, and that, given the demands of the United States Military Academy, the adjustment for rookies can take up to a full year. Hatten and others have come in, and stepped up right away to help the team stay in the hunt. Because of the outstanding rookie class, coupled with the growth of Colin Bilek, and the always erstwhile Trevin Kozlowski leading the way in net, Riley’s Black Knights are close to being in the top three in Atlantic Hockey this year, and because of having Riley at the helm, the Black Knights will all ways be competitive.

More importantly, for Riley, his program is continuing a 70 year tradition of trying to live up to the basic bit of advice passed on to him by Jack. The program at West Point, lead by Riley, still cares more about his hockey players as people than hockey players, and produces leaders that go on to do great things all over the world.

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10 thoughts on “Brian Riley: Living his dream, helping others at West Point

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