Photo Credit : Army West Point Athletics
Army West Point Hockey Head Coach Brian Riley needed a new stick. He got to the first day of the season, and realized it was time for a new stick because his previous one was sitting in his office. It is in his office with a place of honor, because that stick broke in practice during the 13 game unbeaten streak his team went on to round out the 2020-2021 regular season and first round of the postseason. Riley, while calling himself not superstitious, likes to not change things during times where his team is winning, and not changing the broken stick, or cutting his hair for the remainder of the season were two of those things. With the season ending, Riley cut his hair in short order, but the stick took on a deeper meaning. That is, the senior class all signed the broken stick, and it now resides in Riley’s office as a reminder of all that one of the best teams to ever represent West Point did last year. Now it is time to move forward for the Black Knights.
With the first day of classes done, the Army West Point Hockey team is back on campus and practicing, ready to follow up one of the best years in this program’s history. Eight seniors, including All American netminder Trevin Kozlowski lead this team to within one goal of advancing to the Atlantic Hockey Championship. Brian Riley’s group fought valiantly and was outfoxed by one of his former assistants, Trevor Large’s Canisius Golden Griffins in overtime of the Atlantic Hockey semifinals. The eight seniors now having graduated leaves holes for new players to fill, and will give the chance for returners to see their ice time increase. Power forwards like Patrick Smyth and Kendrick Frost will be able to play a big part in the middle six for this team, and provide the depth to this group in the forward ranks. Smyth is a faceoff specialist who should add depth to the penalty kill for the Black Knights, and Frost has a track record from Junior Hockey that shows the type of positive power forward he can be for this group. Riley has both of them as options to play this year. Last year he did not.
One constant for this team is returning senior co-captain Colin Bilek, the Northeast Generals Alum, and leader of this team is the returning leading goal scorer from the 2020-2021 campaign nationwide. His effervescent personality, combined with his ability to lead will play a role in how well the group does. If Bilek has a full season anywhere close to what he did last year, expect the NHL and the professional ranks to be taking notice.
As for the team’s collective action to stop the spread of Covid 19, they have all done their part .The staff and players are fully vaccinated already. The excitment of Riley’s group to play non conference games this year is evident, and Army faces two early tests out of Atlantic Hockey play. They open on the road against Providence, then two weeks later head north with their football team to Madison to take on the Badgers of Wisconsin.
As to the forming of this year’s group, Riley is happy to be back together. As he said of the early work of his group .”we’ve had three skill practices this week.. its good to just be able to get out there.” One of the honest realities Riley and his staff has to face every season is missing his seniors in this first week. As he said, “you’re looking around for your seniors and realize oh their not here anymore.”
This year’s group for Riley faces more questions on defense and in net. The group has three capable goalies with similar styles all competing to earn the number one spot. In net, the three way competition is expected to be a fun one. Returners Justin Evanson, Gavin Abric both have an outgoing personality and should battle for the net along with plebe Evan Szary. All are hard workers that expect to push the other two for time in net. On the ice, as Riley said, “all three are different styles than Trev was.” They are all athletic netminders that can get side to side very quick, and have similarities in their game to recent Lake Superior State graduate Mareks Mitens. As a result of the gulf in styles between Kozlowski and these three netminders, Riley expects some adjustment in how the team plays and prepares for each game. The three netminders have a combined two and a half games of experience amongst themselves.
As for the eight first year players or plebes, they routinely have the biggest adjustments to make. The demands of West Point always have them needing to adjust to the day to day with more on their plates. The plebes have gone seven weeks without being on the ice between Cadet Basic Training, and Reorganization Week. As Riley said, “I think it will take a couple weeks for them being comfortable back on the ice. ” They all will have to figure out how to get on, and stay on the ” train (of academic requirements, academy, and military requirements) that pulls out of the station from day one at West Point..”
Riley mentioned two of his sophomores looking to improve on their stellar plebe seasons, Lincoln Hatten and Mich Machlitt. As he said, “they certainly didn’t disappoint us as plebes.” Both have the tools and track records needed to play at an elite level. They, along with Bilek, will be expected to carry the mission up front and lead the way in points and production.
As to adjustments, in principle for Riley and his group, the underlying motto and traditions all remain. The staff does not look to implement a new theme each year, and tries to keep things consistent. Riley said it best when he said that “I’m really proud of the fact that our culture is really really good, and we just want to be a team that’s hard to play against and a team that plays for each other.”
Looking ahead to the future, Riley also touched on recruiting in a more normal year than the pandemic-marred 2021-2022 campaign. On the differences this year brings, Riley said that he is lookning forward to being able to, “just to be able to have kids on campus and go watch games… for us in the recruiting piece I believe getting kids to come to West Point is really important but most importantly it gives them the opportunity to meet the people here, I know as coaches we’re really looking forward to the year.”
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