For most of the 2011-2012 season, Army has been one of the most offensively-challenged teams in the nation, averaging just 1.76 goals per game, but you never would have known it in the first period last Saturday night, when the Black Knights outshot their opposition, 25-4, and scored as many goals (three) as they have in a full game all season.
Of course, there was a very good reason for the Black Knights to be fired up for the game: it was a game every player on the roster had looked forward to since he arrived at West Point. Last Saturday marked the first game in six years between Army and Canada’s Royal Military College, the resumption of what’s been billed as the oldest continuous international rivalry in sports.
“We felt that this was such a rich tradition,” said Army head coach Brian Riley. “We had to try to get it back.”
“We’re so excited to have this back,” RMC head coach Adam Shell said. “The relationship between the two schools is something that is of paramount importance, and it’s a very special history. Having the chance to see them play, to play against them, to meet their guys, and understand what they go through and exchange knowledge, it was a tremendous experience.”
The series was started in 1923 by Douglas McArthur, then a brigadier general and the Superintendent of West Point, as a way to form bonds between the two service academies. The Paladins won that first game at West Point, 3-0, the start of a 15-game unbeaten streak (14-0-1) that the Black Knights finally stopped with a 3-2 win in 1939. The teams met just once more after that until 1949, but the series was played continuously after that, up until the teams’ 75th meeting in 2006, a 3-3 tie in Kingston, Ont. Following that game, a dispute over the ages of the Paladins’ players – some of whom were civilian graduate students rather than cadets – led to the suspension of the series.
“When it ended before,” Riley said, “there was a nastiness, a kind of lack of respect.”
Last year, however, Riley and Shell came to an understanding, and the series was scheduled to resume for this month.
“I just think it’s important that this game is as many cadets for them as possible against our cadets,” Riley said. “Adam Shell is a great guy. He and I have talked on the phone, and I know that he respects the rivalry. I think it’s exciting and I look forward to that continuing.”
The resumption of the series brought an electric atmosphere to Tate Rink, fueled by both a large traveling contingent from RMC and a large turnout from the home fans. The game was attended by both USA Hockey president Ron DiGregorio and Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, and legendary former Army coach Jack Riley (father of the current coach) and longtime RMC head coach Danny McCloud were on hand to take part in a ceremonial faceoff following a presentation of colors by a joint color guard and the playing of both the American and Canadian national anthems.
“Having my dad here and Danny McCloud was very special,” the younger Riley said. “One’s 91, one’s 90, so it meant a lot to see those two guys out on the ice before the game.”
With the ceremonies out of the way, the Black Knights proceeded to lay a furious beating on their Canadian rivals. Fueled by two goals just 25 seconds apart, Army jumped out to a 3-0 lead after the first period and a 7-1 lead after two, finally cruising to a 9-1 win.
“We have been battling it, for whatever reason,” said Black Knights team captain Mike Hull, who scored two goals in the victory and assisted on a third. “It’s good to see the results and finally get rewarded for the work that we’ve been doing.”
The offensive explosion carried over into Army’s next game, a 4-2 win over Connecticut on Tuesday, only the fourth win of the year for the Black Knights. Riley is hopeful that the team will be able to recreate some of their offensive fireworks in their remaining games.
“This was a huge game for us,” Riley said. “Any time you play in a rivalry game…we have really been struggling to score goals, so I have to believe that as a team and as individuals, for those guys that are able to find the back of the net, I think that’ll go a long ways to hopefully build some confidence.”
For now, though, the two academies are just happy to be playing again, and developing both their rich tradition of competition on the ice and their spirit of cooperation off of it.
“In the real world, they’re our teammates out there,” Hull said. “They’re battling just as hard as we are for the greater good. Having them down here and competing against them, it’s a great feeling, and to know, to understand and learn the tradition behind it, it’s just a privilege to participate in the game.”
“This is great,” DiGregorio said. “What I loved was what happened at the end. Two teams play a battle, the score is the score, but afterwards, they got together, saluted the fans together, and that’s what hockey’s all about. It’s great to see this come about again.”