November 15, 2005

The committment. The time management. The travel. It's hard being student-athlete. But those demands pale in comparison to being a student-athlete-soldier.

By Jayson Hron

There's only one college hockey program in the nation that uses guns and grenades during dry land training. For Luke Flicek, it was a perfect fit. Now a sophomore at West Point, the Minnesota native is at the leading edge of Army's hopeful resurgence, pacing the Black Knights with eight points and making head coach Brian Riley crack a smile every now and then.

"We'll probably lose $100,000 in tape this year because of him," said Riley. "I've never seen anyone tape and re-tape his stick as often. He'll even re-tape his stick between periods. And he'll work on his stick for a half-hour before games. But that's just him. He's one of the most analytical, cerebral players I've ever coached."

His heady ways have helped him post a team-leading five assists thus far. They've also helped him survive West Point's off-ice gauntlet, a test that began with basic training prior to his freshman season.

"It was the longest six weeks of my life, no doubt about that," said Flicek. "There are some days that you didn't think it was ever going to end. For a while, you wonder what you got yourself into but you really don't even have time to think about that. You don't get much sleep. It's one of those things that make you appreciate the finer things."

But basic training is just the beginning. As a plebe, or first-year cadet, you don't speak until spoken to on campus. And you have certain responsibilities that range from tedious to exhausting in addition to those you would typically expect on the ice and in the classroom. Of course, class begins earlier too, often around 7:25 a.m. And inspection is always looming.

It's not the same as Anywhere U., but neither is the mission. West Point builds defenders of the free world, not beer-guzzling sixth-year seniors.

"I've gotten up at 6 a.m. so many times, it isn't a problem any more," said Flicek.

The pace is brutal. Academically, socially and emotionally, West Point pushes its cadets to the limits of what they believe can be accomplished. Then it pushes harder. The strain makes recruiting athletes a challenge, but it's one that Riley embraces.

"Every school has challenges," he said. "But not every school has what West Point has to offer. There aren't many West Point graduates out there struggling to find jobs. And staying in the Army, with the chance to retire as a colonel with a full pension at 42, is a good situation."

The potential for bountiful opportunity is part of what swayed Flicek, who expects to enter the armor or field artillery branch for his compulsory five-year, post-graduation service stint. But those weren't the only factors. The campus is stunning, as are the athletic facilities. One visit makes a major impression.

"We probably didn't have one player that grew up saying, 'I want to go to West Point,' but it's all about making them realize it's an option and a great option at that," said Riley. "We know that if a player sees West Point first-hand, there's a really good chance that young man will come here."

And, just like the academy's unique appeal, Army hockey is also something special. Only 12 teams have more all-time victories than the Black Knights, who began play on a frozen pond in 1904. Still, it's been a struggle recently. Army has but one winning season in its last seven campaigns and was winless this season when it took the ice Friday to battle Air Force.

Riley considers the Canadian Royal Military College as the Black Knights' most bitter rival. Flicek says it's the Falcons from Colorado Springs. There's no team he would rather beat.

"It's kind of a cage match out there," he said.

And so it was on Friday as the Black Knights dueled with their service academy rivals for either the 39th or 41st time, depending on which side you asked. The teams first met in 1969. Army won 12-4 and 8-0. Air Force claims they were nothing more than exhibition games.

Friday's contest, played on Veterans Day, would count. Not only was Army seeking its first win of 2005-06, it was also seeking its first win over Air Force in three games. A sellout crowd packed Army's Tate Rink and watched a classic as senior goaltender Brad Roberts blanked the Falcons, 3-0. It marked the first time Army shut Air Force out since 1996.

The Black Knights completed a series sweep 24 hours later on an overtime goal from Chris Migliaro. Flicek also scored, no doubt reminding Air Force why they competed against Army for his services when he was leading the Texas Tornado in scoring two seasons ago.

It was a magical weekend at West Point, one the Black Knights hope will translate into even better days on the horizon.