FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Nov. 29, 2018) -- Last December, All Army Sports assembled a team of Soldier-athletes to see if a successful ice hockey program could be developed and added to its arsenal of competitive athletics.

Were there enough Soldiers who could even play hockey? Could they match skills against other military teams? Would there be enough interest to continue a second season after the pilot ended?

The inaugural team answered all of those questions on the ice.

They trained hard, bonded well and won all of their scrimmages during the three-week trial camp at Fort Drum, New York. After that, the team sustained their undefeated streak to earn the gold medal at the 5th Baltic Military Winter Games in Lithuania.

Now in its sophomore season, All-Army Hockey returns to Fort Drum with nearly 30 Soldier-athletes trying out for the team. The players gathered at Watertown Municipal Arena for their first day of practices Nov. 28 for skills and conditioning drills. Most of the players had only a few hours of sleep that morning due to delayed flights during a winter blast across New York.

Capt. Jeff Fearing and Lt. Col. Darrin Janisch return to the coaching staff as head coach and assistant coach, respectively.

"It's awesome being back," Fearing said. "It's such a great place to hold tryouts - all of Fort Drum and the leadership is really supportive, and the arena here is an awesome facility. It was funny walking into the barracks yesterday, because it felt like no time had passed since we were here last year."

Fearing said that the goal is to put forth the best team possible during the two-week trial camp, with the hope of duplicating last year's success.

"We definitely want to improve as a team, and I think we can be an even better team than we were last year," he said. "We have guys returning and some new guys in the mix who are really good - you can tell that already. Any time you put an Army team together, we compete to win. That is always going to be the expectation."

They will face the West Point Club Hockey Team at 8 p.m. Dec. 1 at Watertown Municipal Arena and the Watertown Wolves at 2 p.m. Dec. 5 at Cerow Ice Arena in Clayton. Both games are free and open to the public.

Janisch said that they are authorized to field a team of 22 players, to include two goalies. Cuts are expected to be made after the first scrimmage, as the team prepares for international competition in Finland.

"We are going to put the right guys in the right positions," he said. "What we don't want is anybody sitting the bench if we don't need them."

After a day of practice, players said that they felt in great shape, but they needed to get into "hockey shape."

"You can have a lot of aerobic endurance from running and physical training, but hockey is more than that," said team trainer Maj. Christina Hylden, from Bassett Army Medical Center at Fort Greely, Alaska. "It's those sudden bursts, where players are on the ice for 60 seconds at a time, and that's right at the cross point where you're between anaerobic and aerobic exercise."

Capt. Colby Burling, assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, said that he was only able to get onto a rink once every two or three months while stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

"As far as conditioning goes, I run about 30 miles a week and switch it up with intervals, plyometrics and everything else," he said. "You'll never be able to simulate skating, though. You have to feel your edges and know where you want to put the right amount of pressure to make your moves. You have to be efficient with your movements."

Pfc. Brandon Taylor, assigned to 291st Military Police Company at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, hasn't stepped onto a rink since his stint on last year's All Army Team. He said there was no doubt in his mind that he would apply again for the trial camp.

"It feels great being back," he said. "I definitely have a lot of rust to knock off, but I'm feeling better and definitely getting back into the groove. I'm just excited to be here and, hopefully, make the team again this year."

Pfc. Michael Antoniou arrived at the trial camp from Fort Hood, Texas, where he serves as a field artillery Soldier with B Battery, 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team.

He enlisted in 2017 and wasn't aware of the All Army Sports program until this year, when a former Fort Drum Soldier told him about the hockey team.

"After I heard that, I did some research and saw that they were pretty successful last year and that this was a competitive team, which I've really been missing," Antoniou said.

He said that it was exciting to be on the ice for the first time with the team.

"I've missed it so much," Antoniou said. "I couldn't wait to get on the rink - it just brings you back."

Antoniou said that he started playing in a youth hockey program in Connecticut and continued through high school and college until he enlisted. He didn't think he'd get a chance to play again as a Soldier.

"Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of opportunities for me to play hockey in Texas. To do something like this is amazing," he said. "I couldn't be happier for this opportunity."

After an exhausting first day of practice, the team met with senior leaders, 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers and community members during an icebreaker social. Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, congratulated the players for being selected for tryouts and said that it was a privilege to once again host them at Fort Drum.

"These Soldiers came from all these different posts for a chance to play hockey, and you don't just get to walk on this team," he said. "You have to be able to play, and play well."

Piatt said that last year's team did a remarkable job of representing the U.S. Army during their time at Fort Drum and in competition overseas.

"We like to say that Fort Drum is home of All Army Hockey," he said. "When you came up here last year, you really made your mark, and we were so proud of what you accomplished. These are tremendous, tremendous athletes."

Piatt told the group that it is fitting that the home of 10th Mountain Division (LI) is also home to All Army Hockey, as the division was formed by athletes, and its ranks were filled by some world-class skiers and mountain climbers.

"We pride ourselves on that legacy, so today just having the All Army Hockey Team start here and come back here means a lot to this division and to Fort Drum," he said.