By Bruce Berlet
Coaching hockey at one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning (and discipline) has been in the Riley family tree for 60 years.
Memories abound since Jack Riley began a 36-year run on the banks of the Hudson River in New York in 1950, to be followed by son Rob for 17 years and now son Brian since 2004.
Jack took a sabbatical to coach Team USA to stunning Olympic gold in the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif., then Rob took over at West Point in 1987 and had Brian as an assistant for 10 years before retiring – temporarily – and handing the duties to his younger brother, who had worked for two years during that stretch at Shattuck St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Minn.
“I tell people it’s like the old five-and-10-cent store,” Brian said with a smile. “It’s a family business, and you don’t see a lot of it, but now that I’ve been there, I certainly understand why my dad stayed there for 36 years. You know every day that when you come in and see the cadets that you’re around special people. It’s also a great place to raise a family and has such beautiful scenery.
“The kids don’t understand it until they graduate, but as someone who has seen it and been a part of it for so long, it really is both a very rewarding and humbling experience to be able to say you coach at West Point. My dad was also an assistant athletic director, so that’s like the only place that we’ve known except for the years that I coached at Shattuck St. Mary’s.”
Shattuck alums include hockey stars such as Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, Ryan Malone and Jack Johnson, President Hubert H. Humphrey, actor Marlon Brando, sportscaster Brent Musburger and Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson.
Rob unretired and became coach of the AHL’s Springfield Falcons on Aug. 3. Brian will lead his Black Knights into Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 19 to play American International College of Springfield in an Atlantic Hockey Association game as part of Whalers Hockey Fest 2011.
Brian and his team are excited about adding another memory to their hockey careers before continuing dedicated lives to mankind that mean so much to the entire nation. Those memories include Jack Riley receiving the NHL’s prestigious Lester Patrick Award for contributions to hockey during festivities for the 1986 NHL All-Star Game in Hartford. For part of the game, Campbell Conference coach Glen Sather of the Edmonton Oilers let Jack stand on the bench.
All longstanding and vivid recollections, but Riley and Army captain Cody Omilusik believe playing their first outdoor hockey game will leave an indelible memory. About the only thing that would make it better for Riley is if the Connecticut Whale was playing only the second AHL game outdoors that night against the Falcons, not the Providence Bruins.
“I was kind of hoping that maybe the AHL game would have the Whale against the Falcons,” Riley said. “That would have been really neat.”
Riley then paused, smiled and added, “But I don’t know if I would have stayed around. I’ve seen him coach enough already.”
The Army-AIC game was initiated when Whalers Sports and Entertainment contacted AIC coach Gary Wright about participating in the Winter Fest. Wright then contacted Brian Riley, and they discussed how the teams had a home-and-home series on Feb. 18-19. The Black Knights were hosting the Yellow Jackets on the 18th, a Friday, and vice versa on the 19th. So the Saturday game was moved from Springfield, Mass., to East Hartford.
“When Gary mentioned it to me, it seemed to be the fad nowadays is to play outdoors,” said Riley, a three-time Atlantic Hockey Association Coach of the Year who has guided the Black Knights to six consecutive playoff appearances, the first regular-season championship and has had four players chosen to participate in the NCAA Frozen Four skills competition. “I think from a college hockey standpoint, it’s hopefully a great opportunity for kids to witness a Division I college hockey game and maybe force them to say, ‘Hey, maybe someday I want to be a Division I college hockey player.
“You look to create memories every year, but this is certainly a memory that will last a lifetime for all of us that will be involved with it. When I told the players, they were really excited. And to be able to be involved with this event with somebody who’s such a great coach and person like Gary makes it that much more special for me. I’ve known him for 20 years and actually saw him play for Vermont against my dad’s teams, so the hockey world is a small world.”
Omilusik, a senior captain and right wing from Traverse City, Mich., said the team was instantly psyched when they received word from Riley that they were going to compete in the Hockey Fest.
“Coach mentioned something about it in October, and that got us excited,” Omilusik said. “Then when he told us a few weeks later that it was official, the whole team was very pumped. It’s a great opportunity and a once-in-a-lifetime dream.
“Most of the kids in Traverse City grew up playing and practicing outdoors. Then you see a couple of outdoor games on TV and think, ‘Wouldn’t that be awesome to do.’ When it finally happened, it was a pleasant surprise.”
Omilusik has a special affinity for outdoor games since his the family usually hosted Christmas parties for his hockey team when he was in junior high school.
“The parents would enjoy themselves inside, and we’d play 3-on-3 in our backyard rink until 2 or 3 in the morning,” Omilusik recalled.
That’s not much earlier than Omilusik arises for his daily military/academic/sports duties. He’s up by 6:20 a.m., has breakfast at 7 and then classes start at 7:30. Lunch is at noon, then more classes before hockey practice from 3:30 to 5 p.m., with weight lifting to follow on Monday and Wednesday. Dinner is at 6:30 or 7 p.m., depending on how quickly someone can make it from practice to the dining hall. Studying usually runs from 7:30 p.m. to midnight, and everyone has to be his or her room by 11:30.
“Time management is really important,” Omilusik said in one of the all-time understatements. “It’s not uncommon for guys to pull all-nighters.”
But Omilusik has been used to rigorous routines since he grew up on a golf course in golf-rich Traverse City caddying and working in the bag room. That, too, included early-morning hours.
And when Omilusik’s father, a doctor, moved the family from Traverse City to Grand Rapids, Mich., when Cody was in third grade, he helped clear a large section of trees on their 10-acre lot and built a pond.
“We could swim in the summer and had a rink in the winter,” Omilusik said.
And host those family Christmas parties.
Life growing up was just as extravagant for AIC captain Tom Mele, a left wing from the Bronx, N.Y., who played on the same line with his brother, Steve, a sophomore center, during the second semester last season.
The only outdoor rink that Mele saw growing up was at Rockefeller Center in Central Park, and that’s not exactly conducive to playing hockey. Instead, he played a lot at Playland in Rye, N.Y., where the New York Rangers used to have training camp and usually practiced during the season.
Mele played in high school at Playland until he was 16 years old and left home to play Junior B as a junior and senior at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset on Long Island. St. Mary’s won the state championship eight years in row, including two with Mele on the team.
Mele played three years with the Hawkesbury Hawks of the Central Junior Hockey League before enrolling at AIC, where he’s finishing his college career at 24, which is older than more than half of the Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale players.
Playing outdoors at Rentschler Field will be a unique experience for Mele, the team’s “old-timer” who grew up a Rangers fan and got to enjoy the end of a 54-year title drought when they won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
“I went to two or three games a year but didn’t go to any of the playoff games but remember where I was when they won,” Mele happily recalled. “I was sitting on my knees in front of the television with my dad, my mom and my brother, saying, ‘Is this going to happen or what?’ I was staring at the TV like, ‘Come on. Let’s go. Time go down.’ ”
It finally did, and Mele celebrated with the rest of Ranger Nation that had been thirsting for a championship for more than half a century.
Mele and his Yellow Jackets teammates got wind of possibly playing in the Winter Fest a few months ago but didn’t get the final word until 10 days ago.
“There were a couple of local parks back home where people would shovel somewhat of a rink, but it would be on concrete so they’d bring out a hose, so it doesn’t really count as an outdoor rink,” Mele said with a smile. “A lot of city guys don’t have a chance to have that experience, so this is a great opportunity for me especially and for our program mostly. To be a part of the whole thing that’s going on is an honor.”
Mele said when the team heard it was going to be part of the Winter Fest, it was “total excitement.”
“You see the outdoor games in the NHL and the NCAA game that they had at Michigan last year, and just to be a part of it is exciting and will give our league a lot of recognition,” Mele said. “People who might not normally see us will see us. We were a little surprised (to be asked to play) because we’re not a Connecticut team, but this will be really important for our league and our program. It’s a step in the right direction.”
It’s also why Wright said “it was kind of a no-brainer” to give up a home game to play in East Hartford. That didn’t surprise Riley, who said he knew it would happen because Wright “is kind of a traditionalist.” And Wright, whose 27 years at AIC is the second-longest tenure in Division I to the 37 years of Boston University’s Jack Parker, thought it was better to play the game on Saturday night rather than Friday night “because it’s on a little grander scale.”
“This is so special and such an unusual event that I think it’s better to do it on the second night,” Wright said. “It’s a pretty neat concept, a grand event, and kind of brings you back to the origins of the game. It’s a great thing for our college, alumni and the sport of the hockey. Most certainly, it will be a wonderful experience for both teams, possibly punctuated by a few snowflakes.”
Hopefully not too many.
The Hockey Fest in 38,000-seat Rentschler Field will include youth, high school, prep school and college games, a Connecticut Whale-Providence Bruins game and games including the Whalers, Bruins and Rangers alumni, NHL legends that appeared in the 1986 NHL All-Star Game in Hartford and Hollywood stars. There also will be “Whaler Village,” featuring exhibitors, games and the Whalers Mobile Hall of Fame. For ticket packages, visit the Whalers Pro Shop ticket page or call 860-728-3366. For club seats and suites, call 860-728-3366. Individual tickets go on sale at a later date. Wolf Pack/Whale full season ticket holders will receive a voucher good for admission to your choice of Feb. 12 or 19.