Team of the Week: Air Force
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
When you're Air Force, and you're playing with a small margin of error to begin with, losing a Hobey Baker Award finalist to a potentially season-ending broken leg is not the type of thing that's easy to absorb.
But when you're Air Force, you absorb it, because you have to.
"I certainly don't want to equate hockey and athletics to combat, but people ask questions like all is lost," said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. "That's not the mentality to have, especially our guys if you're going on to a military career. It's the nature of the game that they understand. When one of their comrades get hurt, they carry on."
In this case, that comrade was Eric Ehn, who also may have suffered ligament damage when he crashed feet first into the boards during Saturday's loss to Colorado College. Ehn scored 64 points last year, and this year was the team's leading point getter with 25. It's possible he could return this season, but that's very much in doubt.
But there are other players performing well, and that is why Air Force has done as well as it has. So well that this past week it defeated in-state rival Denver, 5-2, breaking a 19-game losing streak against the Pioneers. The next night, against cross-town rival Colorado College, the Falcons lost 2-1. But the weekend was enough to earn them CHN Team of the Week honors.
Of course, the word "rivals" is a loose term, and Serratore knows it. Denver and CC are powerhouses. Air Force may be close by, but it's not anything close to a powerhouse. And that's OK. Given its constraints, it should be credited for doing as well as it does. Especially lately.
Last season, the Falcons (12-8-4, 9-6-3 Atlantic) won the Atlantic Hockey tournament and scared the living daylights out of Minnesota in the NCAAs, before a late Gophers rally avoided a huge upset. This season, the Falcons are 3-2-1 in non-conference games, and are the only team to have played all their non-conference games against ranked opponents.
"The upside is as good as it can probably get at our place," said Serratore, who coached at Denver in the early '90s before he was replaced by George Gwozdecky. "Where we've been sloppy and where we haven't gotten the job done is in league and at home. Our league record at home doesn't match the success of our non-league record. We lost to UConn, we lost to Mercyhurst, to RIT. We also tied three games at home."
That currently leaves the Falcons two points behind RIT for first place in Atlantic Hockey. Of course, no team is going to make the NCAAs from that league unless it wins the postseason conference tournament, so the regular-season is more about momentum.
"You've got to make hay when the sun shines. We let those points go when we were relatively healthy. Now we have to go on the road with a skeleton crew.
"With our non-conference record, if we were undefeated at home, we'd be (in the Pairwise mix)."
The reason for Air Force's success obviously goes beyond Ehn. And no one typifies that moreso than junior Brent Olson, who has 24 points and leads the team with 11 goals.
Last year, Olson became the first player in Serratore's 10 years at the helm to be ruled academically ineligible. A Minnesota native, he missed the team's NCAA game against the Gophers.
Once academy players enroll as juniors, they seal their commitment to the military. So Olson had to decide whether he was going to do it, given his tenuous hockey-playing status.
"The easy decision would have been to go. He decided to stick around," Serratore said. "And I started him out on the fifth line. He came in after a couple practices and said, 'I'm not happy where I'm at.' And I said, 'Do something about it,' and he said, 'I plan on it.'
"He went to work and within a short period of time, he's become one of our top players, if not our top player."
That success story reached a Hollywood pinnacle when Olson scored both goals against Minnesota in the team's 2-2 tie at the Dodge Holiday Classic in Minneapolis last month. The second goal tied the game with 1:02 left in regulation.
"I had my doubts," Serratore said. "He's not a smoothie. His game is a work ethic game. He's got a great shot, he can really shoot. But he's worked hard and he's determined. Sometimes players can wander aimlessly for a couple years and then things can click in. And things just clicked in with this guy. He leads by example, he's inspirational."
That inspiration will be needed this weekend, when the Falcons get back to the nitty-gritty of league play, with two games at Army.
"There's not going to be a letdown when you go to West Point," Serratore said. "Around our campus, the games this weekend are a lot bigger than (anything). Ninety percent of the Air Force Academy Cadets never heard of Colorado College from where they're from. So around our institution, these are the games that are circled."