Ranger looks back on birth of Army club hockey program
February 7, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Feb. 6, 2013) -- When Capt. Patrick Toffler failed to make the West Point hockey team, he didn't hang up his skates. He changed them out for a different pair.
Not that he wasn't good enough to play for the Black Knights -- he had gotten plenty of accolades during tryouts, he said. There simply wasn't a spot available on the team.
"At that point, I had no hockey program to play for," said Toffler, of the 75th Ranger Regiment, who first began playing the sport at age 5. "As a walk on, I knew there was a good chance I wouldn't make the team."
With nowhere else to turn for hockey, Toffler joined the West Point club team. That was 2004, his freshman year as a cadet at West Point. Today, Toffler isn't known for having an impact on the West Point hockey team, but he played a key role in developing the club team. You could even say the sport was literally changed because of him.
"We really built up that program," Toffler said. "It gives cadets now a second option and an opportunity to play hockey if the Division I option isn't available."
At this time, the club team didn't play ice hockey, but inline hockey. The team had no ice rink it could use and had no funding from the school. Toffler swapped out his skates for rollerblades. He had never played competitive inline hockey before then, he said.
"It's much easier for (ice skaters) to skate and stop on ice," he said. "On the court, there's more friction, so it takes more effort to get up and down. With stopping, you either do a sharp turn or a sputter stop, which is not the same as ice where you can stop on a dime.
"The game is much more spread out because you're playing four-on-four with no icing and no offsides. That was the hardest transition for all of our players every year. Inline hockey is about controlling the puck and the team that controls the puck usually wins. That was something we had to battle through at least half the year before we figured it out as a team."
Before Toffler arrived, the club team was playing recreationally in a developmental league, he said. By his sophomore year, it became a part of the Eastern Collegiate Roller Hockey Association and worked its way up to competing in Division I of that league.
"We had enough guys to play hockey that we realized we could really build this thing up," he said. "We didn't need to be playing in the developmental league."
It required a major sacrifice of time for all involved, he said. The academics at West Point were already demanding. The team had little time to meet throughout the week and they couldn't practice the sport they were competing in. The only venue the team had to practice was the school's ice hockey rink on Wednesday nights. On Fridays, they gathered to travel to a weekend tournament to play a sport with a different surface and different gear.
Toffler committed to developing team camaraderie, even if it was just working out or going for a run with teammates.
"It was certainly a leadership challenge, but also it was tough just to recruit all the guys," he said. "I had to get them from playing ice hockey to being used to playing roller hockey. That was a significant challenge since it was a different game. But, once the guys got used to playing on a different surface and playing with four guys instead of five, we ended up being pretty good."
After West Point, Toffler moved to Fort Benning to begin the Basic Officer Leader Course and then spent two years in Fort Carson, Colo., playing in a men's recreational hockey league in both locations. He returned to Fort Benning in 2012 and made the roster for the Fort Benning hockey team in January. Fort Benning recently earned an exhilarating 4-3 win over Fort Bragg Jan. 26 and will play a rematch Saturday in Fayetteville, N.C.
Toffler scored no goals nor had any assists in the first game, but as a 5-foot-8-inch skater, his best attributes were his speed and the understanding of his role, said Jerome Bechard, head coach of the Columbus Cottonmouths and the Fort Benning team.
"There's usually those guys who score all the big goals and get the accolades," Bechard said. "And then you have the linemen protecting the quarterback. Pat falls into that category. He can make the big play and get himself in that situation, but I think he's happy staying quiet and getting the win."
As for the West Point club team Toffler left behind, it's made remarkable strides. It joined the American Collegiate Hockey Association this season, the first as an actual ice hockey program. On Jan. 25, the Army and Navy club teams got together for the first ever meeting between the two squads.
Navy, which Toffler said was a well-respected club team, defeated Army 6-4.
"I consider that to be a huge success," Toffler said. "That's Navy's (only) team, and it's Army's club team, and this was our first year playing on ice. It shows that there is talent and the ability to compete at the highest club level.
"It would have been easy for that team to falter and go away. The guys have maintained that program. At a place with high demands -- academically and physically -- it would have been easy to say, 'We don't have time for this.' I love that they've transitioned from roller hockey to ice hockey and I hope to see the team continue to grow."