Tate Rink has a maximum capacity of just 2,648, which pales in comparison to the size of the hearts of the hockey players who skate across the ice with the superimposed Army West Point logo at center ice. They know it’s bigger than hockey, even if it seems like it isn’t during game night. The public address announcer calls the names of the first line to the point, and does the same for the opposing team. The national anthem is recited, and the Black Knights bang the blades of their sticks to the ice as they skate to the bench after a brief warmup.
It’s astonishing to think the men’s hockey team that represents the greatest leadership institution in the world has less than 3,000 people watch them play their home games. What’s even more perplexing is the fact that head coach Brian Riley, a family friend of mine, is able to assemble a competitive team every year given his constraints, not just any hockey player can attend West Point. The son of legendary coach Jack Riley, who played for Team U.S.A. during the 1948 Winter Olympics and guided the Team U.S.A. hockey team to a gold medal in the 1960 Winter Olympics, Brian Riley is part of a family that has hockey engraved in its DNA. Most of Army’s opponents are bigger and more skilled, but Army is able to counter that disadvantage with a punishing forecheck and speed, the latter becoming a staple in the NHL.
There’s one particular series that stands out for Coach Riley and his troops, one that has more meaning than any other. Every year, they play against Mercyhurst in a two-game series near the end of January. Brian Riley’s sons, Jack and Brendan, play for Mercyhurst. Jack is a redshirt senior this season, and Brendan is a sophomore. They both play forward, and Jack is currently a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the best Division I hockey player. While the Riley triumvirate share a great bond, for two nights each year it becomes Father vs. Sons. Brian Riley addresses his team while leaving no stone unturned before every game, but especially against his two sons, and he refuses to lose to them.
Last year, Army was 3-2 against Mercyhurst, with two of those victories coming in a best-of-three playoff series in the Atlantic Hockey Quarterfinals, the preliminary playoff series for the DI hockey conference that also includes Canisius, Holy Cross, Niagara, Robert Morris, American International College, Rochester Institute of Technology, Sacred Heart, and Bentley. More than two games against the Black Knights and Lakers is a rare occasion, but it’s an extraordinary sight to see.
On Friday the 26th and Saturday, Janaury 27th, Army will once against host Mercyhurst at Tate Rink, with the puck drop at 7:05 on both nights. Army currently sits at 10-10-4 for the season, currently fourth in the Atlantic Hockey standings. They boast the second-best penalty kill unit in the nation, at an .889 rate, and that includes 16 consecutive successful kills. Army goalie Cole Bruns is having a standout season as well, as he currently ranks 14th in the country in save percentage (.916) and 34th in goals against average (2.57). Jack and Brendan will attempt to terminate the penalty kill streak this weekend, as the Riley Bros have combined for 12 goals this season. The tandem has guided Mercyhurst to a 12-10-3 record. These two games are usually the only sellouts for Army West Point hockey each season, but given the circumstances for the games, it’s perfectly appropriate.