June 12, 2007
Postcard: Flying First Class

By Jess Myers

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – There’s something to be said for knowing when you’re where you belong. A decade into his tenure at the United States Air Force Academy, the one-time northern Minnesotan who occupies the head coach’s office has come to the definite realization that he and his team are where they’re meant to be.

Frank Serratore’s white Dodge is the only car in the Cadet Ice Arena parking lot that came from a dealership in Duluth. But with a green and white Colorado license plate just a few inches from the dealership logo that features a Lake Superior lighthouse, the car fits the setting somehow.

Forward Eric Ehn was a Hobey Baker Award finalist in 2007, part of a precedent-setting season at Air Force.

It’s the same way with Serratore and his hockey team, which have found their places in Atlantic Hockey despite the fact that Falcons home games are played roughly 2,000 miles west of (and more than a mile above) the ocean for which their conference is named.

On a sunny June morning, Serratore welcomed a visitor into his office tucked beneath the east side stands. He gave a quick tour of the Falcons’ locker room before the conversation moved through the double doors that lead to the rink. Just two of the arena’s 2,995 seats were occupied as Serratore motioned to the banners for schools like Sacred Heart, RIT, and Connecticut that hang above the scoreboards. Their closest conference rivals are two time zones away, but the Falcons feel like they’re where they belong.

“We play in Atlantic Hockey where we compete and have a good team,” Serratore says, giving the 10-second version of 2006-07 in review. “We win our share and we have a nice run at the end, we win our league, we go into the NCAA tournament, we’re playing Minnesota, and our kids believe.”

Nearly three months after the final horn, mentioning the details of Air Force’s first-ever trip to the NCAAs (a come-from-ahead 4-3 loss to the Golden Gophers in Denver) still causes Serratore’s legendary temper to flare. But the result serves to illustrate his point about the Falcons being where they belong, playing against schools of like size and resources.

“We had a good Air Force team, but if we played in the WCHA we would be demoralized by Christmas from losing 4-2, 4-3, 3-1, 3-2,” he says. “We would be so demoralized by losing those close games that we couldn’t win an intrasquad game in January.”

A glance at the season results shows that the Falcons were indeed 0-3 versus WCHA teams last season and all three were one-goal losses. By contrast, the Falcons were immediately competitive in their first Atlantic Hockey campaign, finishing in the middle of the conference pack with a 13-10-5 record, winning the conference tournament, making some noise in the NCAAs, and notching the school’s first Hobey Baker Award finalist in Eric Ehn.

With the breakout year behind them and the next Frozen Four set to be played just up the road, there’s likely more than one optimistic Falcons fan who feels it’s destiny that their team will be playing in the Pepsi Center in April. Serratore doesn’t make those kinds of predictions. Instead, he focuses on the little victories of the past season, like winning enough home games to get fans excited about coming to the rink next season.

Their final conference game of the season was a 6-1 thumping of archrival Army in the Atlantic Hockey title game. And, like conference member Holy Cross did the year before, the Falcons played well enough versus Minnesota in the NCAA tournament to make the college hockey world take notice.

While preparing for next season, and for a few weeks of camps held on campus each June, Serratore has enough time to ponder ideas like an alignment between his new conference and his old one. As he envisions it, an agreement between Atlantic Hockey and College Hockey America would allow the latter to survive with five teams for the time being, keeping two automatic bids into the NCAA tournament and providing a home for potential new members of the D-I family. But those decisions will be made by others in meeting rooms far away from the stunning vistas available just outside Serratore’s office.

In just a few days, a new class of first-year cadets will arrive and begin their dual-track training to become airmen and athletes. The coach will welcome them to their new home at the base of the Rockies and help them get used to their new home in college hockey. A banner or two will be raised in the arena commemorating the notable firsts accomplished last season.

It’s unclear whether those feats can be duplicated by the only members of Atlantic Hockey that must adhere to the high altitude directions when making a box of Hamburger Helper. But to their coach, it’s as clear as the cloudless Colorado sky that the Falcons have found their home in the college hockey world.

Jess Myers can be reached at jess@insidecollegehockey.com