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The cruelest two words in sport: “What if?”
Despite Army Hockey’s handicap of recruiting for a service academy, there was something magical going on at West Point this season for Brian Riley’s Black Knights of the Hudson.
“I remember in early in the year, maybe in October/November, looking around and say to myself, ‘This group can do something special,’” Riley said.
His gut feelings were manifested with 13 wins before the end of the calendar year, including emotional victories over Union and AIC as well as road sweeps at Holy Cross and Canisius. An out-of-conference conquest of UNH vaulted the Cadets into the USCHO Poll, making for a well-deserved New Year’s celebration up at West Point.
Seniors were carrying the offensive load up front, as Dominic Franco and Michael Wilson combined for 21 goals, and junior defenseman John Zimmerman distributed a team-leading 17 helpers.
They proudly represented Atlantic Hockey out in the desert at the Fortress Invitational in Las Vegas, taking two ranked opponents to the limit before falling.
But an injury bug stung the Knights in February, as Wilson missed a half-dozen games and classmate Zach Evancho sat for 11. Army’s hot start, and their emotional shootout win over Sacred Heart late in the year, gave them just enough cushion to earn home ice and a bye for the Atlantic Hockey playoffs. The extra layoff allowed Riley’s Knights to finally get healthy.
“It was the first time all year we had our full lineup,” Riley said about his prep for a quarterfinal versus Niagara. “We felt really good about our practices; our fans were really looking forward to it.”
And then the ball dropped. Riley and his cadets suffered what dozens of NCAA teams went through when individual leagues canceled their championship tournaments when the NCAA pulled the plug on March Madness.
“I remember not being shocked because of how fluid everything was,” Riley said, “but I knew I had to tell the team the season was over.
“I remember feeling terrible for our seniors. Their heads dropped and you could see tears coming down their faces. At the end, it was them hugging each other.”
Riley, who spent several years serving on the NCAA hockey committee, knows all about the harsh reality of Division I sports.
“It’s too bad it had to end like this, but it’s one of those situations where you realize that there are bigger things than the game.”
The aftermath was unsettling for Riley, who has been wandering the West Point campus struggling to reconcile a season of promise had been wrested from his grasp.
“It’s very strange, because under normal circumstances you always know when your season is going to start, just not when it is going to end,” said Riley. “Coming into the office on Friday when you should have been getting ready for a game, it was the strangest and most surreal feeling. It hasn’t ended like this for any coach in college sports, so it’s really unchartered territory.”
“There was something about this group,” said Riley wistfully, reflecting on the Knights 17-win season. “A special year with so many highlights. That’s probably the thing that hurts the most, the ‘what if.’ I don’t think there’s anything worse thing that could happen than those ‘what ifs.’ It’s a lousy feeling.”
Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.