MISSION FIRST: The Hockey Life Of Riley




Dec. 18, 2013

by Ryan Yanoshak

Now, 93 years young and living on Cape Cod in his native Massachusetts, Jack Riley still lights up when he talks about the United States Military Academy.

An Olympic gold medal-winning coach, an Olympic player and a member of numerous halls of fame, Riley is quick to point out how special a place West Point is, saying, "I loved every minute of it."

Jack Riley's resume is well known. Coached at Army for 36 years, winning 542 games. Led the United States Olympic team to a gold medal in 1960, beating Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Germany, Russia and Canada. Inducted in the inaugural class of the Army Sports Hall of Fame and chosen for a bevy of other national honors.

When Jack Riley announced his retirement in 1986, the head coaching job at Army stayed in the Riley family where it has remained for the past 62 years. His sons, Rob and then Brian, took responsibility heading a program that dates back to 1904.

Jack Riley's tenure as head coach was the start of an amazing legacy at West Point, first at Smith Rink and now at Tate Rink. Jack posted 542 wins, Rob won 257 games during his 18 years behind the bench and Brian won his 100th game early in the 2012-13 season.

"I'm not surprised they got into coaching but I never pushed it," says Jack. "We talk all the time, especially after games. They know more about the game than I do but I still want to hear all about it."

The Riley legacy got its start at West Point, but it wasn't easy for the decorated Navy pilot. Jack was approached by then-Athletic Director Col. Earl Blaik about a position in Army's athletic department. Blaik wanted Jack to coach the hockey team and spend time in Washington, D.C., helping cadet-athletes gain admittance to West Point.

"I didn't really want to be a hockey coach," explains Riley, a member of the 1948 Olympic squad that finished fourth despite leading the St. Moritz, Switzerland, Olympic Games in goals. "I was still pursuing the Olympics, but I took the job. I remember playing against the cadets (Jack is a Dartmouth graduate) and how hard they worked, so I took it."

Jack's job was split between coaching the ice hockey team and helping gain the necessary letters of recommendations for consideration for cadets' acceptance at West Point.

The start of his coaching career wasn't Hall of Fame worthy with five wins in his first two seasons, but six straight winning years followed and made people take notice of his prowess behind the bench.

Jack Riley had season tickets to Boston Bruins games as a youngster and spent all of his time trying to talk to management and coaches about breakout plays and coaching philosophies, instead of chasing autographs.

Walter Brown was the owner of the Bruins and got to know Riley, an eager hockey student. As the head of the Amateur Hockey Association, it was Brown who chose Riley to coach the 1960 United States Olympic team.

Riley readily accepted the job and knew it would be a tremendous challenge, bringing players together from across the country to form a single unit against international competition. The majority of the training took place at the large sheet of ice at West Point's Smith Rink. Riley molded the players into a cohesive unit, utilizing Red, White and Blue lines instead of the usual first, second and third lines and enforced a no- smoking or drinking policy, something not unexpected from a man who has never taken a drink or smoked a cigarette.

Riley chose to add the Cleary brothers, Bill and Bob, and cut Herb Brooks, in a move made famous in Disney's "Miracle on Ice" film about the Brooks-coached 1980 gold medal-winning squad. The Clearys combined for 12 goals during the Olympics and Brooks used the experience to win his own gold medal.

While the 1980 team has gained notoriety as the "Miracle On Ice," it was the 1960 team that beat Russia, Canada and the Czechs and secured the country's first Olympic gold medal. The 1980 team had a Disney movie and TBS special; the 1960 squad was featured in a book published by Harvey Shapiro three years ago, "1960: Miracle at Squaw Valley," a project that began when Shapiro was behind Riley in line at a Massachusetts grocery store.

Riley's Red, White and Blue squad claimed the gold medal with a come-from-behind 9-4 victory over the Czechs, the gold-medal favorite.

Riley stored his gold medal in his dresser, an easy find for his sons who brought it out to show neighbors and friends. While it now resides in a safety deposit box, the gold medal was the talk of the neighborhood.

Riley's neighbors at West Point included some of the most well-known names in coaching: Vince Lombardi, Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Parcels, Joe Palone and Eric Tipton to name a few.

"I never thought I would last as long as I did at West Point," admits Jack. "But I fell in love with the place and the cadets. The way they played and gave all they had was amazing. I had a fantastic time at West Point and enjoyed every minute of it. I think my family did too."

Riley's children were surrounded by some of the top minds in coaching so it's not a surprise that two of his children followed his footsteps.

While Rob and Brian continued to serve at West Point, all five siblings were Division I hockey players and captains of their respective teams. Jay (Harvard), Rob and Mark (Boston College), Brian (Brown) and Mary Beth (St. Lawrence) were all tremendous players and students.

"What I remember most about growing up at West Point was the opportunities to be around cadets," says Brian. "We were able to come up to the rink and basically had what turned out to be, in addition to my three older brothers, 25 older brothers. Army Hockey was what we lived for and it was a great experience. Growing up on Bartlett Loop, with all of the other coaches' kids was great too. I was on the sidelines for Army football games filling water coolers. You were able to be a part of so many neat things."

Rob took over when Jack retired and won at least eight games in all 18 of his seasons. Brian learned the collegiate coaching game as his brother's assistant and then stepped in when Rob retired to pursue interests outside of hockey.

"One of the great things for me was working with my dad and the transition from Smith Rink to Tate Rink," says Rob. "I was able to spend so many years coaching with Brian, too, and the family aspect has always been a very important piece. Most important was the daily interaction with the cadets that we got to know and watch grow up. To watch these young men come in and four years later see the finished product was really exciting."

The entire family and the bulk of the hockey community gathered in 2010 to celebrate Jack's 90th birthday and his contributions to hockey. In addition to special pucks, RILEY #90 jerseys were provided for an alumni game, and a host of familiar faces were on hand for a dinner, all of whom signed a giant birthday card. Former Army Director of Athletics Carl Ullrich and fellow Olympic coaches Murray Williamson, Tim Taylor and Lou Vairo were also in attendance.

Brian recently completed his ninth season as Army head coach and led the Black Knights to their first championship, the 2007-08 regular season Atlantic Hockey Association title. He is a three-time selection as Atlantic Hockey Association Coach of the Year.

Rob, meanwhile, returned to athletics. He spent two years as the head coach of the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets top minor league affiliate in Springfield, Mass., before accepting the Athletic Director's position at Regis College.

"I knew I wanted to be around sports but never grew up thinking I wanted to be a coach," says Brian. "It was during college that I realized that the coaching direction was a path I wanted to take. I felt that it would allow me to still be around the game and experience everything that comes with being involved with a game that has meant so much to me and my family. Certainly here at West Point, being a coach is both very rewarding and humbling. As you know, in some small way you are helping to prepare your players for when they graduate to be the leaders of our nation's sons and daughters."

Check back tomorrow for GEN. DAVID RODRIGUEZ: Sense Of Duty.

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