Not Your Average Freshmen
Army Recruits Have It a Bit Different Than Other College Hockey Newcomers
by Jen Dobias/CHN Reporter
The moment Conor Andrle walked through the doors of the Eisenhower Hall Theatre on Registration Day at West Point, he knew his life was about to change forever.
“I’ll never forget, all the hockey guys walked in the front door together, and the military aspect comes at you at once. Everyone’s screaming and yelling, and you have to hurry up to get from issue point to issue point,” Andrle said. “It was a crazy experience going from being a civilian to walking through this door and being initiated into the military. It’s a day I don’t remember a lot that happened. I just remember being like, ‘What’s next? I have no idea what’s coming.’”
What was coming was Beast Barracks, basic training for incoming cadets held at Camp Buckner. And there’s a reason it’s often referred to simply as the Beast.
In the span of six weeks, Plebes are taught everything from how to properly make a bed to how to launch a grenade. At the same time, they endure rigorous physical training, including the dreaded ruck marches, and routine knowledge tests, as they can be demanded by a superior to recite facts like the military pay grades or the phonetic alphabet at any moment.
Before lacing up their skates for the first time as Black Knights, the 11 incoming freshmen had to make it through Beast Barracks and prove they have what it takes to one day be an officer in the United States Army, just like the rest of their classmates. While the experience was the furthest thing from easy, it reaffirmed the commitment they made to West Point.
Growing up, Blake Box and Cole Burns were always interested in military life. Box, a defenseman who captained the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks in 2013-14, recounted how he was always fascinated by military movies. He thought about enlisting but never imagined himself as an officer.
Last season, Burns broke the USHL record for consecutive shutout minutes, blanking five straight opponents to open the season. He wrapped up his final season as an Omaha Lancer ranked third in the league with a 2.27 goals against average and tied for sixth with a .917 save percentage. Now that he gets to do both, he finds it hard to believe now that he almost gave up hockey to pursue a military career.
“I wanted to join the Marine Corps when I was 18, but I decided to keep playing hockey,” Burns said. “When I had the opportunity to come and be recruited by West Point, it was history there: I committed right on the spot. Everything worked out for the best.”
Unlike Box and Burns, Andrle, who spent the past season with the NAHL’s Brookings Blizzard and was their second-leading scorer with 34 points (16g-18a), never thought about joining the military until he was recruited to play hockey at West Point.
“I had no idea what going to West Point meant and what being in the military meant until I came out on a visit,” Andrle said. “When I was there, I got a general idea of what kind of person West Point develops you into. We learn so much about leading people and developing your overall character just by going here, and I really loved that piece. Initially, I was a little bit worried about the military aspect but after basic training, I’m starting to enjoy it. It definitely grows on you.”
It grew on them, but it also wore them down at times. While most incoming college hockey players prepare for their first season by hitting the gym and getting extra ice time, Army’s were slogging through mud with 50-pound ruck sacks, waking up at 4:30 a.m. for pre-dawn wind sprints and learning the basics of combat.
“There weren’t a lot of moments where I was like, ‘Wow, this is really miserable,’” Andrle said. “I’d say the constant grind through the days was the most challenging part. You’re tired a lot from consistently waking up at 5 every morning and doing stuff until 8 or 9 at night. It wears on you after awhile and turned into a grind.”
Added Burns, with a chuckle: “It was pretty fun, actually.”
One highlight all three could agree on was the march back to West Point from Camp Buckner to end basic training. Members of the class of 1968, whose 50th reunion is when the incoming cadets graduate in 2018, made the 12-mile trek back with them.
“They just marched along side and gave us encouragement, told us stories about their time at West Point and their time in the military,” Box said. “It was a really rewarding experience to finish it off with those guys coming with us.”
Basic training didn’t just provide them with the foundational skills they’ll need to one day lead troops into battle. It also taught them many lessons they can apply on the ice.
“Basic training taught me to do the little things right,” Andrle said. “When we first got there, they were really harping on everyone to do the small things right, like cupping your hands. And they don’t do that just to make you go out of your way; they do it to make you focus. You realize that everything is important, no matter how small of a task.”
It will be no small task for the Black Knights to enjoy their first winning season since 2007-08. At 6-28-0, Army posted the second-worst record in the NCAA in 2013-14. The lowlight was an 11-0 drubbing by Boston College Nov. 10, but the Black Knights displayed their resiliency by regrouping to record their first win of the year at Sacred Heart their next game. Army was also the only team to defeat Atlantic Hockey champion Robert Morris in the tournament, upsetting the Colonials, 4-2, in the second game of their quarterfinal series.
After taking on the Beast, the newest Black Knights are confident that they can overcome any challenge on the ice.
“You’re going to face adversity, there’s going to be challenges, it’s going to be tough,” Box said. “But you find out ways to overcome that, and they equip you with the skills to do that right away.”