Lieutenant puts hockey career on ice
January 5, 2011
- Zach McKelvie hoping for another shot with Boston Bruins
- He was team captain for two seasons at West Point
- Soldier had sought exemption under DoD's alternative service option
FORT BENNING, Ga. - Zach McKelvie still has dreams of playing in the NHL but says he's more than happy serving his country.
The 25-year-old first lieutenant, who played four years at Army and was team captain his junior and senior seasons, signed with the Boston Bruins as an undrafted free agent in July 2009 shortly after earning his commission from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. However, a change to the Department of Defense's alternative service option prior to his senior year meant he'd have to serve two years before pursuing pro hockey.
"I was given clearance to sign at first," McKelvie said. "I went to rookie camp in July that year, then training camp in September. During training camp, the Army made the decision I couldn't play."
He arrived at Fort Benning last March and is now the executive officer of D Company, 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment.
The alternative service option was initially set up to allow academy standouts such as McKelvie the chance to turn pro right away. After two seasons, their status would be re-evaluated but could continue playing if they had a contract at the major league level.
In McKelvie's case, West Point officials reviewed the guidelines but ultimately decided he'd have to serve first and try to play two years later.
"It was definitely disappointing," he said. "Playing in the NHL has been a dream of mine ever since I was 4 or 5 years old and first put on a pair of skates. But when I accepted the appointment at West Point, I knew I could potentially not play afterward. I knew that going in.
"It was disappointing and frustrating, but I completely understood. I'm going to do whatever the Army asks to the best of my ability."
As a defenseman, McKelvie had 16 goals and 48 assists in 120 career games for the Black Knights. He won the Fastest Skater competition at the 2009 NCAA Frozen Four in Washington.
He was probably headed to the Bruins' top minor league affiliate in Providence, R.I., in October 2009 when the Army reconsidered its earlier decision, he said.
McKelvie has no regrets and maintains an admiration and respect for the Army and West Point.
"It's been a great learning experience," he said. "It's extremely humbling to work with guys who have been to war four, five and six times on deployments overseas and see how much they've given to their country. It gives me a stronger appreciation for what people in the Army do. I look forward to continuing to learn from them and being an Infantry platoon leader someday, if hockey isn't in my future."
May will bring the two-year mark of McKelvie's service time and Boston remains interested in signing him, he said. He could join the organization at that time and become part of a Reserve unit in the Northeast, but another waiver process is required.
"I'd need the support of my commanders to do this," he said. "If they don't feel it's in the best interest of the Army, then I don't want to do that. I believe there are potential benefits for the Army. I can honor the military and help highlight the great things that come with being in the Army while trying to play at the highest level of pro hockey."
A balky right shoulder has complicated any comeback. In August, McKelvie underwent a third surgery in less than three years to repair a dislocation and torn labrum. That prevented him from going to Ranger School a month earlier and also delayed an assignment to the 4th Brigade at Fort Stewart, Ga.
He said he hopes to start working out again at full strength soon and tries to get on the ice occasionally at the Columbus Civic Center. But the layoff has eroded his game.
"In hockey, there's so much coordination, agility and skill involved with your stick. It's hard to keep your skills up when you don't play at college or pro-level speed," he said. "It'll take a while to shake off the rust. It just takes hard work to get back at it and hone those skills again. A couple years away is a big deal. It's a concern for me, and I'm sure it's a concern for the Bruins, too.
"We'll see how it goes. ... It'd be great to play in the NHL someday, but if it doesn't work out, I look forward to serving in a regular Infantry company."
Still, hockey is in McKelvie's genes and coaching could be an option down the road for the New Brighton, Minn., native. While his twin brother, Chris, plays in the New York Rangers minor league system, older brother Ryan is a Division I coach at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.
"We've all been attracted to the game and want to stay in it, but that's something I'd do after my military career," he said.