January 28, 2010

Zach McKelvie's Pro Hockey Dreams on Hold

ESPN.com reported yesterday that defenseman Zach McKelvie, whom the Bruins signed as a free agent over the summer, will have to complete a commitment of at least two years' service on active duty after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. in lieu of spending the year with Boston's AHL or ECHL affiliates in Providence, R.I. or Reading, Pa. McKelvie , 24, was quoted in the piece as saying that the original Department of Defense policy, which would have allowed him to spend the 2009-10 season playing pro hockey, changed while he was still in school. \"The old rule when I committed to stay in the Army, the old rule was that if you had a contract you could play immediately upon graduation for a two-year period and they would evaluate you during that period and they would determine at the end of that period whether you could keep playing or you could come back here to the Army.

But now the new Department of Defense Policy, which came out maybe a year and a half ago, after I committed, is that you have to serve two years first and then if you have a contract you can play after,\" McKelvie told ESPN.com. To break it down: The U.S. Army spends several hundred thousand dollars for each cadet who completes the four-year coursework and supplementary military training at West Point. While in a perfect world, and one in which America was not at war on two fronts, one might figure that an exception could be made in McKelvie's case, the reality is not that simple.

In the first place, this is a DoD policy, meaning that the Army, who worked with GM Peter Chiarelli to allow McKelvie to come to terms and initially agreed to let him play in Boston's system when the contract was signed, is not the approving authority in this case. DoD encompasses all services that comprise the nation's military, and therefore, this is not a decision the Army can overturn on its own, even if it wanted to. At the same time, McKelvie's frustration is understandable.

Like former Detroit Lions' seventh-round pick Caleb Campbell, he thought he'd been given the green light to pursue his pro hockey dreams and to have that path pulled away from him stings. However, having served nearly 16 years on active duty alongside many West Point grads, I know that McKelvie, by virtue of his successful completion of the rigorous academic coursework and demanding physical and mental challenges of the accompanying military training he recieved during his summers, is well prepared to overcome this hurdle. From the Boston perspective, McKelvie's frustration is matched. I spoke to Providence head coach Rob Murray about him several months ago, and Murray expressed dismay at what had transpired (when McKelvie was ordered to return to West Point indefinitely to serve as an athletic intern), saying that he had been highly impressed with McKelvie given the limited on- and off-ice work he did with him at B's training camp in September.

Murray feels that McKelvie would have been an impact player on his Providence squad this season, and that after planning to have him on board during camp and preseason, McKelvie's absence created a negative ripple effect for the club. What McKelvie could have provided Providence is open to debate, but given his outstanding speed and mobility, work ethic and mental toughness, one might gather that he would have been a solid rookie pro at the AHL level. Had he proven unable to handle that level of competition, more playing time with the Reading Royals of the ECHL would have been an option. What we do know is that none of that matters for now, as Second Lieutenant McKelvie will serve out his military service, starting with infantry officer basic course training at Fort Benning, Ga.

The course will teach him how to be a rifle platoon leader and provide him with basic military skills to be able to perform junior staff officer duties. From there, he will possibly go onto Ranger School, the military's premier small unit leadership course: a grueling, two-month-plus, three-phase test of physical, mental and emotional stamina which takes place at Benning, then in the mountains of Dahlonega, Ga. and in the swamps of Florida. After that (and assuming he earns the coveted Ranger tab), where McKelvie goes is up to the Army, but he'll have some input into where he ends up, be it at Benning, or wherever else he is needed. If past experiences are any indication, if McKelvie is serious about pro hockey, the door will be open to him for a return in 24 months or so.

It won't be easy, but just as Tim Thomas overcame long odds to become an NHL All-Star at an advanced age, the same could hold true for McKelvie. That doesn't sound like much of a consolation to him or the Bruins at this stage of his life, but he just spent four years learning how not to quit and to achieve near-Herculean tasks in the classroom, on the ice, and in the world's foremost leadership laboratory. Don't bet for a second that you've heard the last of Zach McKelvie.