Christopoulos Finding Wings At Air Force
by Melissa Burgess/CHN Reporter
“Not like any other D-I athlete.”
That’s how Air Force goaltender Billy Christopoulos describes himself and his teammates, a group of 32 athletes who not only play hockey and attend classes but are also part of a service academy.
Christopoulos is a junior at the United States Air Force Academy. A member of Cadet Squadron 40, he’s also the top netminder on the academy’s hockey team this year, a position he earned after playing backup to Shane Starrett last season.
Eight games into the 2017-18 Atlantic Hockey season, Christopoulos is finding early success in the net. He’s earned a 2.12 GAA and .925 save percentage and was recently named Atlantic Hockey Goalie of the Month for October.
The 23-year-old was born in Chicago, but moved to North Carolina at a young age. Several years later, the NHL’s Hartford Whalers relocated to the area, bringing in a surge of enthusiasm for hockey, and as a result, youth hockey.
“Youth hockey just exploded from there,” Christopoulos said.
With two older brothers, the role of goaltender often fell to him when playing a game. Although his parents may have tried to keep him out of the net, Christopoulos fell in love with it and hasn’t looked back since.
As a result of his upbringing in hockey in North Carolina, Christopoulos points to Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward as a player he’s looked up to. He played through the Junior Hurricanes program before moving back to Chicago for his senior year of high school.
Following that, Christopoulos spent two years with the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers.
It was there that Air Force began recruiting him, he said. After his time in Des Moines, the goaltender spent the 2014-15 season with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs of the BCHL before making the move to the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
More than 1600 miles may separate Raleigh from the Academy, but Christopoulos says it wasn’t too big of a culture shock for him to make that transition.
“When you’re a hockey player in juniors, you’re so used to traveling all over the place,” he said. “I lived in British Columbia for a year, traveled throughout the Midwest (in the USHL), so you kind of get used to the change of culture, change in scenery.”
While in some aspects it may not have been a dramatic shift for him, in other ways, it was.
“It’s a huge transition going from playing juniors, where your only responsibility is hockey, and then you come here and you’re pretty overwhelmed with the military and the hockey,” he said, noting that freshman year can be especially challenging.
“Throughout the years, you learn to manage a lot better. We still have to remember we’re here; it’s a service academy. We’ve got to put a lot of focus into both the military and the school aspect of it as well,” he said.
The 23-year-old is the first in his family to have any military involvement.
“It’s a first-class organization,” Christopoulos said of the Academy. “The coaching staff, the guys, and the culture here – it’s awesome. On top of the hockey aspect, the school itself – you’re getting a great education, and being able to come out and graduate as a second lieutenant is a pretty awesome opportunity.”
Not to mention, Christopoulos said, that for many, it comes at no cost; many of the players are on full scholarship, a factor that helped him ultimately make the decision to choose the Academy.
In summer, Academy cadets are provided with training opportunities including the Expeditionary Survival and Evasion Training between freshman and sophomore years. That training period involves a week-long stint in the woods, sleeping in tents and learning basic survival skills.
The next summer – which Christopoulos just finished – sees cadets sent to Air Force bases to shadow. He visited a base in Tucson, Ariz., allowing him a feel for what the actual day-to-day life in the Air Force is like. This affords cadets the opportunity to shadow and test different jobs.
One such opportunity Christopoulos got over the summer: riding in an F-16, which he describes as “one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”
With two more years at the Academy, the 23-year-old is already thinking about his future. Cadets are required to give a minimum five-year commitment to the Air Force upon graduation, but the exact length of the commitment depends on the job chosen.
Christopoulos said he’s leaning toward being a pilot, which carries with it a 10-year commitment. Job choices are selected and slots handed out in the beginning of senior year, so he has one more year to firm up that decision.
For now, he’ll stay focused on his schoolwork at the Academy and with his hockey team. The reigning Atlantic Hockey champions will look to repeat this season, this time behind a netminder who describes himself as a “hard worker, athletic and gritty guy” who isn’t “your stereotypical goaltender or the most positional sometimes.”
“I like our chances,” Christopoulos said, noting the team’s high number of returning players as a key factor in the Falcons’ push to repeat as conference champions.
“The beginning of the year, our biggest thing is consistency, bringing the same game every day,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of experience up front, and all our D [defensemen] are returners too, so I like our chances if we can really buy in and start playing a more consistent game.”
Air Force is currently 1-1 in conference games, and 5-2-1 overall. The Falcons host Army for a pair of games this weekend in their first home conference action this season.