By NICK DUKEFebruary 7, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga. (Feb. 6, 2013) -- For most Soldiers, their dreams of athletic glory are limited to heated intramural competition.
For a select few, however, the chance to play their sport at the highest level still remains.
Capt. Biff McNally, a forward on Fort Benning's hockey team, falls somewhere in between.
McNally, who played collegiate hockey at West Point, bounced back and forth the past few months between playing hockey as a hobby and playing hockey professionally.
When the Columbus Cottonmouths became shorthanded in December thanks to a rash of injuries, head coach Jerome Bechard reached out to McNally, giving the New Jersey native his first professional hockey opportunity.
McNally was a college roommate of Capt. Ken Porter, who played for the Cottonmouths last season under similar circumstances.
Through Porter, McNally developed friendships with several members of the Cottonmouths, as well as the coaching staff.
He wound up serving as an extra skater during informal team workouts, as well as a free agent camp that the team held.
"They were short a couple of defensemen," McNally said. "Even though we weren't defensemen, Coach Bechard asked me and Porter and (1st Lt.) William Leahy to come help out with numbers, and the relationship kind of developed from there."
It was during the informal practices and the free agent camp that McNally first caught the eye of Bechard.
"Watching him skate with the guys during the summertime, it was obvious that he could skate," Bechard said. "He maneuvers himself around the ice really well, and his hockey IQ in terms of being in the right place at the right time is pretty high. I figured that he could be an asset, at least on a short-term basis, maybe even in the long-term."
The story of McNally's unlikely journey only got better after being signed, as he scored his first professional goal on his first professional shot Dec. 15 against the Louisiana Ice Gators.
"It was a cool experience to see that light go on," McNally said. "Porter set the bar pretty high when he scored in his first game last year. He's my best friend, so I couldn't know that he had done that without feeling a little pressure to try and do the same."
After that first game, McNally played 10 more games with the Cottonmouths between Dec. 16 and Jan. 5, scoring two more goals and racking up three assists along the way. He returned for a game Jan. 20 in Columbus, and for a pair of road contests Feb. 1 and 2 against Pensacola, where he scored his fourth career goal, and Mississippi.
Feb. 1 was busy for McNally, as he graduated from the Maneuver Captains Career Course that day before leaving for Pensacola, Fla., with the Cottonmouths.
"I ran out of graduation and into the dressing room with my dress blues still on, so I had to scramble to get out of my blues and into a track suit for the trip," McNally said.
With the challenge of playing hockey at the professional level also comes the challenge of managing time, something McNally said both the Army and the Cottonmouths have been understanding of.
"The officers at the career course and the Cottonmouths have been extremely helpful in allowing me to fulfill my boyhood dream of playing professional hockey," McNally said. "They've given me time to balance commitments and given me the opportunity to pursue this," McNally said.
While McNally has been able to juggle both commitments, he said the Army remains his first priority.
McNally is a Purple Heart recipient, which he earned during his first of two tours in Afghanistan when a suicide bomber attacked McNally and his team while they were on patrol in Zabul province.
Shrapnel struck McNally on the head, causing bleeding on his brain. Despite his injuries, he returned to action after about a month.
He said he credits his fellow Soldiers of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, with allowing him to come home and fulfill his hockey dreams.
"The only reason I'm able to fulfill this childhood dream is because I was able to serve with a great unit during both tours that was made up of tremendous NCOs and Soldiers," McNally said. "It's because of their sacrifices that I was able to come back safely."
During his time with the Cottonmouths, McNally has had to adjust not only to playing professional hockey, but also to fitting in with a new group of men.
He said that his Cottonmouth teammates have been extremely welcoming.
"The thing I value the most other than getting to play for a great community is that I've been accepted in the locker room," McNally said. "People go to games and they love the team because they play hard for the community, but they never realize what a great group of guys they are. They aren't just great hockey players; they're great men. They have made me feel like a part of the team."
Bechard said the Soldiers, both Porter last season and now McNally, have been positive influences on the Cottonmouth locker room.
"Our guys get a kick out of it," Bechard said. "The Soldiers' mentality is the same as ours, just on a much greater level. I'd like to think that our guys could learn something from them."