By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsDecember 14, 2017
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Dec. 14, 2017) -- Soldiers from around the world traveled to Fort Drum in late November to try out for the first All-Army Ice Hockey Team. For a few, it was practically walking distance.
Three of the players who will lace up their skates to take on the Canadian Army team on Saturday are from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team and one assistant coach is from the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, 10th Mountain Division (LI).
Sgt. Evan Hammersley, a squad leader in C Company, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 2nd BCT, began playing hockey at age 5 and continued through high school. The Lynnfield, Mass., native then traded sticks and joined the lacrosse team at Salisbury University, where they won an NCAA national championship in 2011. Some of the skills are similar in both sports, such as hand-eye coordination, he said.
"I hadn't played competitively since 2008, so coming back out on the ice at this level was definitely challenging at least for the first couple of days," he said. "I found out that there are actually a lot of ex-lacrosse players here. You'd be surprised about how many hockey guys play lacrosse because there's a lot of correlation."
Hammersley said it has been a rewarding experience seeing a group of Soldiers create a professional-level hockey team.
"This is our sole focus, and it has been absolutely amazing," he said. "Everyone on the team has been bonding so well, and you see that on the ice."
The fact that all three All-Army players are from 2nd BCT isn't remarkable considering how often Commando Soldiers represent their unit in high-level competitions such as Best Ranger and the International Sniper Competition.
"I was stationed in Alaska prior to coming to Fort Drum, and I thought that was a great unit until I got to 2nd Brigade Combat Team," Hammersley said. "The level of training and the pride within the unit is amazing. It's a great unit, and it starts from the top with the chain of command."
Spc. Mackenzie Gray, a Newport, R.I., native assigned to C Company, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, was 3 when he learned to skate, and then an interest in hockey followed almost immediately.
"My mom put me in skates, and I started hockey when I was 4," he said. "I always knew I wanted to play hockey. It didn't matter to me where or what team I played with."
After playing on his high school team and on several league teams, Gray thought he had given up hockey when he enlisted in the Army. That proved untrue after he heard about an All-Army team being formed, and there was no doubt that Gray would apply.
Considering that several team members have Division I playing experience at West Point, Gray said that he knew the skill level was high at the trial camp. He described it as a talented and highly competitive pool of candidates.
"Not having had experience playing in college, it's pretty cool that I can keep up with them," he said. "You could be a really good player but the guy standing next to you might be just a little bit better, so not getting cut -- especially since this is the first year this is being put together -- was great."
So far, people attending the scrimmages have been split between Fort Drum community members ready to cheer for Army and area residents curious to see Soldiers on skates.
"At the end of the day, it's cool to have the hometown crowd here for us," he said. "Our company is really into it, and I know they're advertising it all around so I know it's going to be a big thing for Fort Drum."
That is something 1st Lt. Kyle Donnelly, from 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, has already seen firsthand.
After the All-Army Ice Hockey Team won against the Watertown Wolves on Friday, several fans from his unit joined Donnelly on the ice afterward for photos, and others shouted congratulations from the stands on the goal he made that night. It was only fitting that Donnelly made it with both Gray and Hammersley getting the assists. Likewise, when Gray recorded a goal earlier in the game, he had the backing of Donnelly and Hammersley on the play.
"Half the reason I'm so excited to play on the team is that I get to play with these guys right here at Fort Drum," Donnelly said. "It's great getting the support from everybody in my unit and across the post."
Donnelly grew up in Somers and started playing hockey at age 6. He played high school hockey for Iona Preparatory and the Brewster Bulldogs, and then for The Citadel in college.
"I've always been around hockey," he said. "My parents had me on skates when I was 4 or 5, and from there I started playing in Pee Wee leagues and then progressed to a club team in college. That last game we played was kind of sad, because I didn't know when I would have another opportunity to play. Being here, and having another chance to play, is a great feeling."
He has maintained his skills while stationed at Fort Drum, playing regularly in a local men's league on the Mountaineers team.
"That gives me the opportunity to get on the ice -- not at the same level as All-Army, but it helps," he said. "I actually knew Gray (also on the Mountaineers) before coming to tryouts."
Donnelly said he felt a little nervous entering the trial camp, not knowing how his experience matched up with the rest of the candidates. As exhausting as the first practice was, he said it was memorable getting to know all of the other players.
"It was kind of weird feeling like you're the only guy in the Army who plays hockey and then seeing this incredible group of guys come together to play the sport we all love," he said.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kyle Connelly, a pilot in command assigned to 1st Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, serves as assistant coach for the team. He said that when he saw the announcement online, he wasn't immediately sure if he should apply as a coach or a player.
"I haven't really been on the ice these past five or six years because of the Army, so I thought I could be best used as a coach and help the guys out," he said.
"I've been playing hockey ever since I was a little kid growing up in Massachusetts," he said. "I started playing pond hockey when I was 5 or 6, and it kind of grew out of that."
Connelly played hockey throughout high school and into college, where he was on the University of Central Florida Golden Knights and Florida Atlantic University Owls club hockey teams.
Professionally, he worked on the coaching and training staff for the NHL's Florida Panthers.
"I've always had the joy and passion to be involved in this sport and be part of a team," he said. "To be able to do that in the Army is beyond belief."
Connelly joined the All-Army coaching staff with Capt. Jeffery Fearing (head coach and player) and Lt. Col. Darrin Janisch (assistant coach).
"For the past three months, all of us have been in constant contact, even before anything became official with the team," he said. "The coaches have put in a lot of work into this, from lining up jerseys for the whole team to setting up ice time. We've had a lot of support from the (Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation) to make this happen."
"It's a great group and a huge mix of experience," he said. "I think everyone meshed together as a team almost from the beginning."
That unit cohesion is something Connelly said is unique to hockey, and he said that he saw the chemistry among players mature every time they got onto the ice.
"Anyone who has been in the sport long enough will tell you that if you are in the locker room, you're part of the team regardless of whether you've been playing a day or playing a year," he said. "From day one, they were almost already where you'd want a team to be as if they'd been playing together for five or six years."
Off the ice, Connelly said the coaches and players get together every evening to talk hockey, play pool and just decompress from the day's activities.
"It's a great opportunity and experience to be able to represent the Army in an event like this," he said. "To start this from scratch and potentially have a future in the program is beyond belief. The fact that we are laying the groundwork for this at Fort Drum, you can't beat that."
The trial camp has been more than just playing hockey. Team members and coaches have spent time with several local youth hockey teams, helping with skating drills and fundamentals. Connelly said they are happy to do so.
"Just being able to go out and interact with young hockey players has been huge for us," he said. "For the guys who came here from all over the Army -- in Germany, Italy, Alaska and so on -- to help the community that has helped us so much, it's pretty special. Our guys are really appreciative and the kids seem to be having fun, so it's great."
Connelly said that even though some of them live and work on post, special events like the morning run with the 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commanding general were memorable because they got to share them with the team.
"I've been here for almost three years, and I certainly didn't know all the history that Maj. Gen. (Walter) Piatt was sharing with us," he said. "All the guys said that it was a great experience and that they actually seek out those kinds of things every post they go to, just to learn the history of those units."
Now these Soldiers are making a little history of their own as members of the first All-Army Ice Hockey Team.
"This has been an opportunity of a lifetime," Hammersley said. "I may never get this chance again, but if I could do this every year I would. Being a part of a great group of guys and great hockey players -- how do you beat this?"
The team will challenge the Canadian Army Ice Hockey Team on Dec. 16 at the Watertown Municipal Arena, with opening ceremonies starting at 3 p.m. Admission is free.
"I grew up playing against Canadian teams in tournaments, and they are super competitive and they love their hockey," Hammersley said. "I'm excited. We have a hell of a team, and this should be a good one."
Gray has confidence that his team is ready for Saturday.
"I'm not too worried about playing the Canadian team at all," Gray said. "I have French-Canadian in my bloodline, and I've been up there a lot for tournaments. I know what kind of hockey they play, but I don't know this team's level. But I know we have a great team here, and I know it's going to be a great game and we're going to play hard."