Frank Serratore on Air Force Hockey, Atlantic Hockey Expansion, and more

Photo Credit: Air Force Academy Athletics

“Any time you have do deal with adversity.. what doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger.” That mantra sums up the experience of the 2019-2020 Air Force Academy Falcons Hockey Team. A team that finished the year with only two juniors had its best weekend of the season in its final one, a series sweep of the Golden Griffins of Canisius at home where Frank’s group took it to one of the better teams in Atlantic Hockey this season, in their only regular season home series played at their rink in 2021. Of those two juniors, Serratore expects to see one playing regular minutes as a senior next season, starting goaltender Alex Schilling. For many nights, he was the best Falcon on the ice for Serratore’s group this season. In the season ahead, he will be their leader Frank often says ” you can buy everything at Walmart but experience.” The group this season earned theirs, and while the team still will have a lot of young players in key roles, the returners have earned a lot of experience playing in a tough season unlike any other. The Falcons only had a few true home games this season because of teams being in and out of Covid-19 protocols.

Hopefully, for Air Force Academy, their own need to deal with Covid-19 protocols because of tier one personnel testing positive is coming to an end. Cadet-athletes who are able to get their vaccines have been doing so. As a result, the team had to deal with long pauses this year which altered their preparation somewhat. Some days there would not be on ice practices, and others were made different by Serratore’s assistants. As he said ” we took some time off” he went on to praise the work of Associate Head Coach Joe Doyle and Assistant Coach Andy Berg Andy Berg as Frank said of the pauses ” you can almost practice too much .. coaches did a great job with keeping players involved.”

Going forward, the coaching staff has been vaccinated, and those unable to get their vaccines yet due to recently having Covid-19 itself should be able to do so over the summer months. Next season, the Falcons will venture out of the state of Colorado for one non-conference series, against Michigan State on the road. Serratore also scheduled games against local rivals Denver and Colorado College in part to minimize the amount of flights they need to take elsewhere during the season.

As for the conference Frank coaches in, he gave us his opinion on its potential future. While noting that this is Frank’s own opinion and being clear that decisions will be made by administrators of the conference, he went on to provide a road map for the future of Atlantic Hockey. Frank was honest about where the conference is, given that it has had only one representative in every national tournament since 2004 (the first year of Atlantic Hockey) all but one time, when Niagara and Canisius earned a trip to the postseason. That 2012-2013 Purple Eagles team is the only group in the history of Atlantic Hockey to earn an at large bid. Serratore noted his opinion, saying “I’m not so sure its great to be a part of a large one bid conference”. He suggested splitting in into two seperate leagues to guarantee all of its members two automatic qualifier spots as opposed to one.

Frank further suggested admitting teams like Alabama Huntsville and Long Island to make the split work, along with the potential third team that could be on the discussion agenda for this summer. In a general sense, of all independent programs currently in the game Frank said “to me it would make sense to take those schools, as many as possible and make two conferences out of them.” Later he noted that the ideal size for a league in this game is seven or eight schools. At either measure, it provides opportunities for a balanced in conference schedule, while allowing for more non conference opportunities for Atlantic Hockey teams, which currently can only play six non exempt games outside of their own league.

Frank was honest about where his league currently is, and gave his own opinion. On the logistics he said, “I think that would be a very wise business decision” in creating two conferences. He went on to discuss the two leagues creating a scheduling alliance going forward to provide non conference opportunities for each team each year. While we did not discuss what that would look like, he noted the value of having, as he said “two Cinderellas” and said that “Im sure the big schools wouldn’t be too happy about that.”

For the smaller programs in this game, Frank said, “For the have nots in college hockey I think it would be real beneficial.” Of Huntsville’s path, he said, “the people in Huntsville want to continue hockey… we sure cant afford to lose members.” In general of programs in this game he said the following ” we cant afford to have these programs dying on the vine.” He went on to echo the sentiments of other coaches we have talked to in this conference, saying ” Its important to keep all these programs alive.” From a development standpoint he said “there’s more good players than there are lockers out there.” Finally, he added, “we don’t want to have less opportunities, and there’s more kids that can play” at the Division One level than there are spots available for them to do so right now. Of the work that needs to be done, Frank ended this part of the interview on the saying simply, “we need to find a way.”

The Transfer Portal has enough student athletes in it to start 10-13 talented programs right now. The long term effect of this extra year of eligibility, while not experienced by Serratore’s Falcons, or Brian Riley’s Black Knights at Army West Point, effects every other team, as any player who was on a roster this year is allowed an extra year of eligibility. The program at service academies creates second lieutenants and builds leaders within 47 months. That does not change. Thus Riley and his staff are dealing with replacing eight skaters with freshmen, no transfers for his group or Frank’s.

While Serratore is excited about the depth and potential of his recruiting class coming in, he was honest about the process at Colorado Springs. When asked about seeing how good this group of commits coming from all around the country will be, while emphasizing developing them this summer, and over their first two years, he said ” ask me in two years.” Schilling and Willie Riem will be the on-ice leaders for the group next year, and both will play key roles in getting the Falcons back to their perch atop Atlantic Hockey that they lived at for the two seasons prior to AIC knocking them off it. The goal for Serratore every year is consistent, to have his team at their best going into the postseason. As he put it, “we will be the team come playoff time that no body wants to draw.” As for only having one senior Frank said “the bad news for us is we’ve only got one senior on our team .. the good news is that its Alex Schilling.”

On Serratore’s extensive coaching tree, like Brian Riley, he gets to coach against his former assistants. In this case, both of them happen to be behind the bench of Robert Morris. As he said of Derek Schooley and Mike Corbett, now behind the bench at Robert Morris, before proceeding to list the countless other former players of his that have become coaches,and other assistants that have gone on to lead programs, “I’m so very proud of both of them.”

As Corbett told us, Serratore cares about the game and is a passionate advocate for it. When Corbett came to Frank’s Denver team in 1992, Serratore looked beyond what presented itself, and saw Corbett as the whole person that he is. Coming to Denver in 1992, Corbett was a young father and husband and felt that Frank took a chance on giving him a scholarship and supporting Corbett’s young family. Frank disagreed, noting that, “to me, it was an easy decision.. when we were able to bring Mike and his wife up to the university of Denver … he just had a very mature air and a very mature perspective.. that was an immediate benefit even before he established himself as a player in our line up.” This story from Corbett and Serratore’s perspective on it shows that Serratore takes Jack Riley’s advice on coaching as serious as Brian does. As Jack said ” make sure show your players that you care for them more as people than as hockey players.”

It is clear from his decades of experience in this game, the stories of former players and assistants like Corbett’s, his love for growing the game of college hockey, and his ability to have perspective on his team’s work through a pandemic-marred season, combined with his hopes for next year, that Frank is living up to Jack’s advice, and inspiring future leaders in the Air Force to do the same with the airmen that they will lead upon graduation. In addition, he and Riley have inspired countless leaders to get involved in the game with coaching with that same mindset, and this sport is better off for having them in it.

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AIC is thankful for Julius Janhonen: Read why

Photo credit: Kelly Shea-AIC Athletics

Julius Janhonen was not on track to play hockey for Head Coach Eric Lang’s American International College Yellow Jackets Ice Hockey team this year until late in the recruiting process. He did not reach out to Lang or his staff, but rather his advisor reached out to Lang. His advisor, according to Lang, said to offer him a scholarship, and that Lang should, “just take him and thank me later.” In his first season, through 13 games played, he has eight points (three goals and five assists) and is plus six. Janhonen has earned his ice as a player who exudes confidence, has a high vision, and shown an immediate ability to speed up his game on North American ice.

Of his transition from the Finnish game (Janhonen is an Espoo, Finland native) to the North American game, Lang said ” it took him about a week to adjust, his adjustment and acclamation to the u is as good as I’ve ever seen, and after seven days we knew we had a special player.” Lang said of Janhonen’s advisor, given the year that Julius has had and what he brings to the group “I’ve been thanking him ever sense.” Janhonen heard about the pedigree of the program when the staff reached out to him, and committed pretty fast, without a single on campus visit. As Julius put it, “I said yes right away.”

Janhonen also has a pretty unique experience from his time in Finland. He played with potential 2022 number one overall pick in the NHL, Brad Lambert, and learned a lot from him, and his father Ross. Spending time with both of them helped Julius to refine his stick handling skills and skating speed. Julius and Brad are friends, and Julius is appreciative of what he learned playing with Lambert in Finland. Julius wants to develop into an Alexander Barkov-like player capable of providing a large amount of offense for the group, while being responsible in his own end.

This year has been immeasurably helpful to Julius. He called Eric Lang, for many reasons ” the best coach I’ve ever had.” Of the group he plays with, he relishes the daily competition. For instance, he notes that all four goalies have a healthy competition with the skaters in practice every day. He said, “they’re so smart and competitive and they want to get better every day.” Of the group he plays with, he enjoys the competition for ice time, and how deep the team he plays for is. He said that on any given night, “any line could be in our lineup.”

Finally, Julius singled out senior Chris Dodero for his mentorship and for helping him improve defensively. Team defense, especially amongst its forwards is a hallmark of AIC Hockey under Eric Lang’s leadership and Dodero has mentored Janohnen in that way. Of all of the leadership amongst the Yellow Jackets Janhonen, simply said” when I’m a senior I want to be like them.”

For now, with his team set to play an opportunistic, and battle-tested Niagara team this Friday, AIC as a team has a lot of reasons to be thankful, one of them is for the strong start of a player that, before practice started, Eric Lang did not have a chance to see in person.

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Randy Hernandez: Growing and learning for the Colonials

Growing up, Robert Morris Colonial, and Miami native Randy Hernandez always knew he wanted to play the game of hockey. From the first time he went to a public skating session, through the first time he had a stick in his hands, he naturally gravitated to the game. This season for Robert Morris, Hernandez has shown his natural speed and skill with the puck for Robert Morris. For Derek Schooley’s team, he has contributed 10 goals and 12 assists playing with captain Nick Prkusic in key minutes for the Colonials. Hernandez wanted to go play at a place where he would have an opportunity contribute right away

Randy had options when coming to college, but chose to go to Robert Morris because, as he said “It’s a smaller school and for me it’s a better fit… as soon as I got here I knew it was the place for me.” He comes from the Brooks Bandits out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, a program that has produced NHL luminaries like Cale Makar and Curtis Glencross to name a few.

For Hernandez, he models his game not after Makar, but after his Colorado Avalanche teammate, Nathan McKinnon. Randy admires the way McKinnon plays and brings himself to the rink. In addition, like Randy, McKinnon is one of the fastest players at his level. He choose to wear number 29 because of McKinnon, and wants to round his game into the complete package and compete on McKinnon’s level in a few years time. While at Robert Morris, he is looking to build up the defensive side of his game, and other neutral zone skills to compliment his high speed, and hockey intelligence. One of his biggest mentors this season has been Prkusic. They both came from the Brooks program, and play two completely different styles of hockey. Hernandez noted of the Colonials’ captain that “he’s a workhorse [and is] always back checking,” Playing with Nick, and the speed of the game helped Randy understand very quickly that, as he said of the importance of attention to detail at the Division One level , “here if you make a mistake it’s going in the back of your net.”

For now, his resume from the regular season is sterling, and he is looking to help his group get to the postseason. For the Colonials, their only path, despite finishing first in their Atlantic Hockey Pod, is through winning the Atlantic Hockey Tournament. The group has eight practices to get ready for the quarterfinal round, and he thinks that will help them. The staff will focus on honing the finer details of their game, and of the group Hernandez said “we each motivate each other in practice.” The Colonials will be ready to start the postseason next week, both with a wonderful group of veterans leading them, but also helped by stars of the future, like Hernandez.

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AIC Bounces Back Against LIU: Now What?

(Photo Credit: Kelly Shea-AIC Athletics)

The Yellow Jackets of American International College (AIC) came out in their first effort of the new year and earned a well-deserved 2-1 victory over the Sharks of Long Island University (LIU). Chris Theodore and Aaron Grounds provided the AIC response to a Zack Bross shorthanded goal to earn the series opening victory.

This team played with the same effort it did in its series finale loss to Quinnipiac, except they had more to show for it. Stefano Durante was again stellar in net for this team making 19 saves on 20 shots for an evening where he was not facing much. LIU finished the night with a mere 32 shot attempts to 51 for the Yellow Jackets.

In practical terms that indicates the reality of this game. AIC controlled time and space for the vast majority of it, and if not for Garret Metcalf playing a nice game for the Sharks of LIU, combined with the Sharks blocking 12 of those looks, this score could have better reflected the outcome of the game.

A look at the Goal Scorers

Let’s focus some more on Aaron Grounds for a moment. The six feet, three inches tall Jamestown, North Dakota native seems to be a constant in Head Coach Eric Lang’s ever changing bottom six. His power and ability to be the most physical player on the ice is an ever-constant threat for these Yellow Jackets. On his goal, he was the beneficiary of a nice setup from Parker Revering.

He found Julius Janhonen through the neutral zone who saw Grounds. From there, Aaron walked in and picked the far corner against Metcalf. As Grounds told us, he wants to keep improving on his skating and finesse work and, today was a good indication that the extra dedication to his craft he is putting in is paying off. Eric Lang recruited Grounds for his physical game, and ability to chip in on offense, so far, he has been proven right on both counts.

The Yellow Jackets are themselves a very deep team especially at the forward position. On any given night, Lang has multiple quality forwards that would be in a lot of team’s lineups not playing, and Grounds has had to fight for time against all of them. At the pace he is going on, Grounds could find himself moving up the depth chart very soon if he keeps playing his game as he is.

In addition to Grounds, credit Chris Theodore for his consistency and improvement. He finds himself playing with Tobias Fladeby, one of the leading scorers in the country on Lang’s premier scoring line. Theodore is already two points away from equalizing his highest output at AIC which came in his freshman season with 10 points. That took him 34 games to put up those numbers, he has eight points in an equal amount of games already. As defenses look to match up with Fladeby, Theodore will get more scoring chances himself, and looks ready for that responsibility. The two have excellent chemistry playing together, and are part of one of the more unheralded scoring trios in the game with Elijah Barriga centering them.

As for the Yellow Jackets, they travel to take on these same Sharks tomorrow night at 5:00 PM Central Time. On paper, the team of good humans played a one goal game today and won. In reality, the possession numbers and other metrics like the play of Theodore and Grounds showed a team continuing to improve, and always striving to get better.

With all of this in mind, part of the reason why the score was so close, was Long Island itself. The Sharks did not give AIC many rebound looks, and closed down the inside quite well, throughout the game. Lang’s teams do not often get outworked in the areas around the blue paint, but today they did. AIC has to be better physically tomorrow. The Yellow Jackets have to improve their ability to box out and get to the net a bit better, otherwise, the Sharks will find more chances around the net than Lang would like to allow.

As Lang said of AIC’s opponent, “They are extremely well coached, have high buy in, commitment to playing hard, and playing the right way. I anticipate tomorrow will be no different.”

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Eric Lang-Leading a team of Good Humans at AIC

Eric Lang is the head coach of American International College (AIC) Hockey. A few years ago, barely anyone had heard of this school, much less any professional players making the NHL from it. They play at the home of the Springfield Thunderbirds (AHL) in Massachusetts, and their initial claim to fame was showing the world what Eric Lang knows. That is, recruiting great humans to come to this school with a chance to be a part of something bigger will yield results. Said great humans helped show the world what this type of hockey can do, as they , the lowest ranked team in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, defeated the number one team, St. Cloud State, before coming within one shot of equalizing a superb Denver side the next night.

One of the great humans on that team was a freshman but integral piece to that team, Brennan Kapcheck. Since his freshman year, he has only gotten better,

Kapcheck has put up 26,25,and 25 points in each of his first three seasons and runs the power play for the Yellow Jackets. He is a puck-moving two-way defender with a strong side of offensive ability to his game, and one of the most coveted undrafted free agents set to graduate in the spring. Lang has had conversations with 15-20 NHL teams about him already, and would not be surprised to see more chat with him as the year moves onward. As Lang said so honestly “Brennan Kapcheck will be one of the most sought after free agents in college hockey. He’s been the best player in our league for the past 3-4 years. He individually has changed the landscape of AIC hockey. There’s really not a lot he cant do.”

Lang noted that scouts have compared Kapcheck to Troy Stecher, Adam Fox, and Anthony DeAngelo. On the ice, those are apt comparisons, as Kapcheck often is a master distributor on the ice, and makes life easier for both his forwards playing on the ice with him, through precision passing to set up grade-a looks, and for his goaltenders as he is not afraid to win puck battles in front of the net, and clear rebounds as needed.

Brennan is one of the reasons the Yellow Jackets persevered against the Huskies and earned the victory (from that day, AIC Media Relations Director Seth Dussault told us “if we win don’t call it an upset”, so we avoid using that term on this site when referencing that evening as best we can).

Onward to Kapcheck’s main staring goalie behind him, Stefano Durante. He has persevered through a lot over his career, including injuries derailing one of his seasons. Durante at his best plays a calm game, and works to limit grade a rebounds that teams like North Dakota are so good at slamming home for easy goals. According to Lang, Durante is in the position he is to earn a shot somewhere at the next level because “there isn’t a more prepared player that I have coached, “every box in his life is checked to the fullest.” Over the next year or two, expect Lang to be getting some calls about Durante as well. NHL teams sign quality people to their systems every year, and Durante definitely meets that definition.

Finally, in this short interview, we were able to touch on the importance of all of the AIC family relevant to what Lang does, running a college hockey program at a small school at the Division One Level. One person that is at the center of that is Seth Dussault. He not only handles media requests from folks like us, and runs social media for the Yellow Jackets, he does it on some level for all of the sports going on at the school, and to top it off, he usually is the voice of AIC Hockey, and calls games with a flair eerily reminiscent of some of the early work of “Doc” Emerick. That is, he brings you along for the ride, and gives you a bit of history, comedy, facts about hockey, and sometimes other things like Frozen references, all while doing the work of eight or more people. As Eric Lang said best ” Seth is an extension of what I like to say our program embodies. He is selfless. We don’t have a lot of superfans across the country, but Seth does as good a job as anybody in promoting our brand. He is a valuable member of our team and our AIC team.  

This AIC team hopes to play the Bentley Falcons in a home-and-home this weekend in snow-socked Massachusetts. The Yellow Jackets are facing a team with previous (won December 8,2020) Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Week in their net, in Nicholas Grabko, in what expects to be another challenging matchup in the often overlooked, but always tough Atlantic Hockey Association.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

Fighting Hawks Earn 5-0 Season Opening win Over Canisius: Two Thoughts

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Tonight, in front of over 11,000 brave souls who braved the terrible conditions of a fall blizzard, the Fighting Hawks of the University of North Dakota Men’s Hockey team earned a season opening win over the Golden Griffins of Canisius 5-0.

Shane Pinto opened up the scoring for UND in the first period, he was joined later on by Dixon Bowen who potted two markers on the evening along with Gabe Bast and Grant Mismash. This deluge of scoring included three third period goals to ice the game and that provided the final 5-0 margin

Bowen benefited from the strong play of Jasper Weatherby who keyed his line. Again Weatherby’s faceoff performance (13-4) proved important on the evening. He and Pinto drove the success up front by combining to win 27 of UND’s 37 faceoff wins.

Over time look for Weatherby’s line to see more ice time as the coaches see his ability to continue sucess in the faceoff dot, a welcome supplement to the strong physical game that he plays.

Adam Scheel finished the evening in net for the Fighting Hawks with an 11 save shutout, and outside of a nice barrage from Canisius in the first few minutes of the third period, did not face a lot of chances on the evening.

Beyond the Box Score 

For UND: Don’t Overreact 

This team played a solid third period that saw their three goals put the game out of reach for Canisius. The Fighting Hawks tonight were the better team and all of the normal metrics from shot attempts, to goals and possession time bore that fact out. With that being said, we saw something similar to the formula other teams used to beat this Fighting Hawks side last year.

When Canisius was at their best, they were almost allowing low percentage shots and cleaning up in front of the net as needed. They got some key saves from Matt Ladd and his replacement, Jacob Barczewski who both used their lateral quickness to stymie a lot of backdoor looks where it seemed that UND was telegraphing where they would shoot.

Canisius Head Coach Trevor Large did not commit to which goalie we would see in net tomorrow, but the Griffins goalies, despite the top line score showed that when the defense cleaned up the loose change in front of the net, that for the most part they could hang with this stacked Fighting Hawks side.

Why am I not screaming praises of this Fighting Hawks team? Well simply put, I believe seeing more from this team is needed. I am not sure what to expect out of this team. When you earn a five minute major and get the other team’s captain ejected you need to convert on that power play throughout the season.

Despite nearly four minutes of zone time UND did not do so.  In addition, while I was impressed with the consistent all out pressure of this team, regardless of the result Saturday, their next opponent in the Mavericks of Minnesota State Mankato will present an entirely different test.

This win for UND is cathartic after the sweep they endured last January where a lot of those following this team saw as the low point for the 2018-2019 side. It was like that because UND could not convert rebounds. The Fighting Hawks did that tonight against a high effort Canisius side and took the drama out of the game early in the third period. What happens tomorrow, and further on in the season will prove much more to the long-term success or failure than 60 minutes against a team that had not even played an exhibition against another team before this one. Now that Large and his staff have game tape to dissect, what changes will they make and how will UND Head Coach Brad Berry react?

For Canisius: Short and Sweet 

If you are reading this and a Canisius fan, thank you for reading this far first off. I was impressed with the ability of this team deprived of one of the best offensive players in the country last year and called “instant offense” to hang around against a superb UND side. The Griffins showed that they can hang in for two periods and execute a game plan to keep the game at least close against a team replete with NHL-caliber talent.

Large noted after the game that the one reason why Canisius had some success later on in this one in finding better chances was the passing game. When the Golden Griffins kept their passes a little shorter, they did not give UND as much of a chance to limit their ability to get to higher percentage areas. The Griffins effort on defense reminded me a bit of the effort shown by AIC against St. Cloud State last March in Fargo. The difference between the two was offense. Last March, AIC did what Large wants his team to do tomorrow which include keeping the passes short and focusing on quality over going for stretch passes like Canisius did tonight. Doing that while limiting penalties and focusing on your effort and ability to block shots could keep this game closer than the highly partisan crowd at the Ralph Engelstad Arena would like.