Atlantic Hockey

Brian Riley's Culture, Leadership Fortify Army Hockey

Brian Riley's Culture, Leadership Fortify Army Hockey

Army Hockey head coach Brian Riley reflects on the intangibles, like leadership, that have led to success in his program.

Sep 29, 2021 by Jacob Messing
Brian Riley's Culture, Leadership Fortify Army Hockey

Army West Point is built on preparing its cadets to be future military leaders of the United States. But, when it comes to athletics, it doesn’t have the same advantages as other NCAA programs in the areas of recruiting or adding transfer players.

“The landscape of college hockey changed with the transfer portal and a lot of teams in college hockey, including many of the teams in our league just reloaded,” Army head coach Brian Riley said.

While Riley admits he isn’t sure of the definitive list of who remains and who is a transfer across Atlantic Hockey, he says transfer reloads with an opportunity cost of culture.

“A lot of teams brought in transfers and we didn’t lose one player to the transfer portal. From a culture standpoint, we’re able to pick that up right where we left off and ease the freshmen into it.”

That culture saw the Black Knights go 15-6-1 last season, earning their highest winning percentage since 1995-96. It starts with senior Colin Bilek, who was named Preseason Player of the Year in the annual coaches’ poll. Bilek returns for his second year as team captain, last season he led Atlantic Hockey in goals, with 18, third among all Division-I players in 2020-21.

Riley praises Bilek for more than just his offensive development, citing that Bilek cultivates team culture and that he can count on one hand the number of ‘bad practices’ his team has had since Bilek arrived in 2018.

“He is so dangerous when he’s on the ice,” Riley said before adding that Bilek is “one of the best leaders I’ve seen come through here.” 

Culture is a word often thrown around sports, but it’s at places like West Point where it is most tangible. Bilek wasn’t the instigator of the culture that exists in his team’s locker room, but he’s added to it. While other programs typically rely on team-building exercises, the military training and continuous contact these individuals have at the academy is seen in their competition.

From a coach that has been in charge of his program since 2004 and has seen many former players serve their country in the field of battle, the praise for Bilek is noteworthy. Among those leaders was First Lieutenant Derek Hines, who played in 112 games with Army from 1999-2003, when Riley was an assistant coach with the program. 

Hines was killed in 2005 while serving in Afghanistan. In his memory, the team recently completed the Hines Test, which is typically a 10-degree incline at 10mph on a treadmill for as long as the test subject can go. This year, due to COVID restrictions, each player rode an assault bike to burn 100 calories as fast as possible.On an assault bike, resistance increases as speed increases.  

Exercise equivalents when burning 100 calories include 30 squat jumps, a six-minute run, or 12 minutes of stair climbing.

“The test measures heart and Derek Hines had one of the biggest hearts of all the players I’ve ever coached. It’s really just an opportunity to honor his memory by having a challenging workout that doesn’t last that long.” 

With the unofficial preseason wrapping up, the Knights are prepped for their opening night game this Saturday, where they will face no. 12-ranked Providence. Over the remainder of October, the Knights will also have a series with AIC, at no. 11-ranked Wisconsin, and a home-and-home with no. 20-ranked AIC.

“As we’re getting closer, I’m not really sure what the hell I was thinking of,” Riley joked on the front-loaded schedule. “We want to make sure we’re playing our best hockey coming down the stretch and playing against teams like this I think will help prepare you. These are the teams our guys want to play and you can’t beat top-ranked teams unless you play them.”

Riley is confident the early tests against nationally-recognized programs will carry his program forward and bring positives regardless of their record after these series. 

“We’re gonna find out a lot,” Riley said. “We’re gonna get experience for a lot of these guys who need to get experience early…kind of a rough start or a challenging start, but I know our guys are looking forward to it.”

Among those who need to add experience, the Knights return just two-and-a-half games in net, from Justin Evenson, leaving the crease as a question mark heading into the season.

“Justin has proven he’s earned the right to start against Providence and that’s as far as we’re going with it. After that, until somebody comes in and proves they can be consistently good and give us a chance to win we’ll go with the hot hand.”

On paper, the battle for the crease will be between junior Evenson and freshman Evan Szary, who enters the year with confidence after being named the NCDC Goaltender of the Year in 2020-21. But don’t rule out sophomore Gavin Abric, who also showed the NCDC his potential in 2019-20.

Don’t miss Riley and his Knights this season, catch all of their conference games live, right here on FloHockey.

Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.