Fair Winds and Following Seas

For Cadets At The U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Playing Hockey Is Just Another Step In The Journey

Joey Dore takes a unique approach to recruiting players to the United States Coast Guard Academy’s club hockey program.

First and foremost, the 17-year veteran of the Coast Guard and Level 4 hockey coach serves as a cadet advisor at the academy in New London, Conn. So, he scrutinizes a candidate’s leadership potential and ability to thrive in a military setting more than his or her stickhandling skills.

“I’m not looking for players to build a team that’s going to win a championship. I’m building people who are going to be great Coast Guard officers who happen to play hockey and have a love for the sport,” Dore said.

“It’s a really different ballgame for us. The players on our team come here for the career and the education. They didn’t come here specifically to play hockey. But, having a hockey program allows them to do something they love, get out of the barracks and away from the military life for a few hours a day and be a leader in a different way, as an athlete.”

From the moment cadets arrive on campus to the day they graduate, the Coast Guard Academy puts them through a rigorous four-year curriculum. They begin as followers and gradually elevate to role models and mentors before graduating as leaders.

The leadership program includes theory in the classroom, experience in sailing and being a part of an organization whose roots date back to the 1790s.

“Their entire day is based around this component of leadership, whether they’re in the classroom, at the rink or in the barracks,” said Ira Martin, a leadership scholar and an assistant coach with the hockey program.

“The company officers, the officers, the enlisted folks who are overseeing them and their coaches all speak a similar language. Certainly, the hockey program fits within the framework of the academy’s mission statement.”

The Coast Guard Acadmey, which includes less than 1,000 cadets, often struggles with the numbers game when it comes to fielding a hockey team. This season’s squad includes just 21 players, including three female cadets, of varying playing abilities.

Adding to the challenge, the Bears play a schedule loaded with some of the top club programs in New England.

“You’re going to be in situations that aren’t going to go in your favor, so there are definitely a lot of life lessons to be learned,” said Lou Depaolis, a senior alternate captain. “The biggest thing is learning to take care of your teammates, especially the younger ones, so they don’t get stressed out about all the things that go along with being on a tight leash in a military setting.

“There’s generally a high sense of camaraderie, and we make sure everyone gets their work done on and off the ice. We want to be the whole package. We want to be a team that sets an example for the rest of the academy.”

The hockey team faced a critical leadership opportunity on Feb. 8, 2014, while returning home from a game against the rival Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. Roughly halfway into the two-hour trip on Interstate 95 in Connecticut, the team’s bus driver suffered a medical emergency, and the bus began accelerating and swerving across the four-lane interstate.

Three players—Ben Lesniak, Mike Rossi and Alex Mead—and team trainer Travis Fender seized control of the bus and provided medical care to the driver during the harrowing ordeal. All four received Coast Guard commendation medals for their actions.

“They didn’t just save the bus driver’s life,” Dore said. “They saved a lot of people’s lives that night.”

While the four attended to the driver and gained control of the bus, other cadets instructed their teammates to fasten their seatbelts and prepare for a potential impact. The bus came within inches of colliding into a concrete median and narrowly avoided oncoming traffic.

“It speaks to how, as a leader, the academy teaches you to keep your head and stay calm in stressful situations,” Depaolis said. “You have to be able to stay calm and be able to take charge, even though you’re in a life-or-death situation. They were able to respond to a crisis without any hesitation at all.”

It takes an extra level of commitment to play hockey at the Coast Guard Academy. Because ice time at nearby Connecticut College is at a premium, the Bears practice at 5 a.m. each day before their rigorous military schedules begins at 8 a.m.

Legacy Of Leadership

The 1942-44 U.S. Coast Guard Cutters/Clippers rosters included a number of Hockey Hall of Famers, including Frank 'Mr. Zero' Brimsek (Boston Bruins) and John Mariucci (Chicago Blackhawks).The 1942-44 U.S. Coast Guard Cutters/Clippers rosters included a number of Hockey Hall of Famers, including Frank 'Mr. Zero' Brimsek (Boston Bruins) and John Mariucci (Chicago Blackhawks).

“Anyone who plays hockey loves the game and will do whatever it takes to play it,” said Nick Mombello, a junior team captain. “That means you have to make some sacrifices to be able to do it. For us, that means giving up a lot, especially sleep and time to yourself. It means a lot to be able to do something you love, like playing hockey, while in a military institution.”

The highlight of the Coast Guard Academy’s season will come on Martin Luther King Weekend with the Service Leaders of Tomorrow Tournament. Four of the five service academies, including Army, Navy and the Merchant Marine Academy, will meet at the home of the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

The three-day tournament features an awards banquet and a skills competition. It’s the service academy club hockey programs’ version of the Beanpot.

Jim Leitner is the sports editor of the Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph Herald.
Issue: 
2015-11

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