This article appeared in the March 8, 2008 issue of USA Hockey Magazine and was written by Jess Myers.
As a fellow student sang the National Anthem, captain Chase Podsiad stands at rigid attention, facing Old Glory, his head filled with last-minute thoughts about the evening’s game plan. In doing so, Chase looks just like hundreds of other college hockey players throughout the country on a cold Friday evening in January. After this moment of calm ends, the band begins to play, the fans packing the arena roar, the puck hits the ice and an evening of college hockey begins.
But college life and D-I sports are anything but typical for Podsiad and his teammates from Army, and for their opponents from Air Force toeing the other blue line. For example, the evening’s National Anthem represented the last of many times they’d stand at attention that day.
For Army cadets the day began more than 13 hours earlier, when the sun was not even a hint beyond the eastern bluffs lining the Hudson River, and a chilling wind was howling down the valley. They gathered in formation in the darkness all 4,400 students who are learning to be soldiers and leaders at West Point. From their sharp lines they saluted, then headed to the school’s mess hall where all 4,400 were seated and ate breakfast in fewer than 10 minutes.
About the time most student-athletes’ alarm clocks were going off at other campuses around the nation, Podsiad was already at class inside one of West Point’s imposing, gothic buildings. After standing at attention for the third time that day to salute the professor, Podsiad and a dozen other cadets were learning of the tactical and political mistakes made by the German government that led to its downfall in World War I.
After a packed day of fulfilling duties as a student and a soldier, one wondered how much gas would be left in their tanks come game time. Podsiad, a senior defenseman from suburban Detroit, admitted that time management and the ability to nap on command are two of the most valuable skills any cadet will learn.
“You get used to it. But you have to have time management so the whole week builds up to that weekend game,” Podsiad said. “There are game days where you wake up and realize that you’ve got to squeeze a nap in sometime during the day. As you progress in the years you learn how to time manage better and your schedule eases up. But freshman and sophomore year there are times when you’re yawning in the locker room.”
When you sign up to be a student-athlete at West Point, or at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, you’re signing up for much more than the typical college experience, and it’s definitely not for everyone. But for those who make the choice, something clicks.
“I’m not from a military family, so it was a weird step for all of my friends and family to say, he’s going there?’ ” said Air Force senior forward Eric Ehn, who became the first military academy player to be honored as a Hobey Baker Award finalist last season.
“But for me, when you go through what you want in a college, this kind of checked all the boxes great education, a stipend every month, the hockey program, the location was amazing. So check every box, plus you get a job when you’re done.”
Of course, the players at both academies are fully aware that when the United States is fighting a war overseas, that “job when you’re done” could very well involve leading men into battle in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Players on both teams admit that what’s happening with former teammates on the other side of the world is a constant source of interest and some concern.
“It’s definitely in the back of my mind, but right now you can’t think about it too much,” said Air Force forward Josh Schaffer, who picked the academy with his sights set on flying either fighter jets or helicopters.
“Even if we don’t agree with it, it’s what we sign up to do and eventually everybody on that team, more than likely, will be over there in some capacity, helping the fight some way.”
The business of serving their country starts long before August of their rookie year for hockey players who choose Army or Air Force. Freshmen report to either West Point (an hour north of New York City) or the Air Force campus (just north of Colorado Springs) in June and go through six weeks of intensive training, learning to be a soldier or an airman before they get to be a student-athlete. For many, that is the real wakeup call that their life has vastly changed from what they knew in high school and Junior hockey.
“The first day of basic [training] is about a 20-hour day where you’re running around getting all of the things you need to be in the military a haircut, medical records, a bag full of shiny belts, shoes and other uniform stuff,” Ehn recalled.
“I was walking behind some kid who was scared out of his mind. I was scared out of my mind. Walking around in that single-file line on the first day of basic training, you’re thinking that this is a different world.”
While Ehn was learning the ways of an airman in the Colorado mountains, Podsiad was having a similar experience 1,800 miles away, amazed at where he was, and who he was becoming.
“The whole boot camp experience is shocking, but I’ll never forget a moment when I was walking in the summer, through a field with a rifle in my hand and a rucksack on my back, thinking, wow, I’m really doing this,’ ” Podsiad said.
There’s no question that life is tough at the academies for freshmen, who not only have to make the harsh lifestyle adjustment, but are saddled with much of the daily grunt work (like doing the upperclassmen’s laundry) of military life. After a few years it becomes more routine and more “normal.” But there are always reminders that the academy experience is a different one than that of hockey players at the nation’s 57 other D-I programs.
“There are some days where you go through life and it’s almost normal college wake up, go to class, go to lunch, then it’s practice all evening. It feels like normal school,” said Ehn, who is majoring in systems engineering management. Then he smiled and offered a quick reminder that academically, things are still unique at Air Force. “I’m building a jet right now, a real jet, in school. It’s fun.”
For many, summers are spent outside the classroom, drilling in the ways of warfare (how to jump out of a helicopter, how to fire a mortar), or learning to be a pilot. Podsiad spent much of the summer of 2007 in Australia on an academic internship, learning more about his engineering psychology major. He smiled and admitted hauling his hockey gear all the way to the other side of the world, only to find nowhere to skate once he got there.
But it’s all about learning, and the Black Knights’ captain said that Army training has paid dividends on the hockey rink as well as in the classroom and in preparing for battle.
“Boot camp helped me as a hockey player in the sense that it made me more calm with the puck,” Podsiad said. “Before I always wanted to get rid of it, but going to boot camp helped me be calm and realize you’ve got a lot more time than you think. I found out I came back better. I’m a different player now.”
That calm shows on the ice when the Falcons and Black Knights squared off. Air Force (stung offensively when Ehn left the lineup with a leg injury in early January) scored the opening goal of the defensive battle, only to see Army storm back. A pair of third-period goals by the Black Knights, along with lots of shutdown defense, spelled a 2-1 win for the host team in their first meeting.
While the Air Force players quietly boarded their bus for a trip back to the hotel, music blared out of the Army locker room. After a rough December where they went eight games without a victory, the Black Knights were on a winning streak. The standing at attention, the saluting, the classes, the marching and the looming thoughts of war were done for the day. For a few minutes anyway, a visitor just saw hockey players, relishing a victory over their brothers from another branch of the service.
“That’s an amazing thing that today was a typical school day for our guys. They were up early going to class,” said Army coach Brian Riley.
“They truly are student-athletes, but I think that really tells you what kind of guys they are to come out and battle as hard as they do on a daily basis. That’s our guys and the guys from the Air Force. You can’t help but to respect what these guys go through.”
Jess Myers is a senior writer for InsideCollegeHockey.com.