By Kirk Luedeke
UNIONDALE, N.Y.– Zach McKelvie may not be a typical Boston Bruins prospect, but if the former active duty U.S. Army officer has his way, he could parlay his speed and natural talent into a successful NHL career.
The Minnesota native and defenseman is 26, just a few months older than Boston Bruins stars Patrice Bergeronand Nathan Horton, but he’s a novice on pro ice compared to the experiences of those seasoned NHL veterans.Though McKelvie took a longer, more gradual developmental route than many of his hockey contemporaries, his time spent in the uniform of his nation both as a cadet and infantry officer may have better prepared him to face the challenges and disappointments that derail young players’ hopes and dreams of reaching the sport’s pinnacle.
“My older brother was recruited by (the) Air Force (Academy),” McKelvie told New England Hockey Journal after Tuesday’s morning skate. “That kind of sparked my interest in the (military) academies. They came and recruited me in juniors and I just figured it was a no-brainer to go and get a great education at a great school and have a great opportunity in the military.”
McKelvie’s interest in going a non-traditional route in the NCAA by committing to the United States Military Academy (West Point, N.Y.) was rooted in the fact that his grandfather served in the Canadian armed forces and young McKelvie always possessed a great deal of respect for the military. While his twin brother went off to Bemidji State for college hockey, Zach’s travels took him from the Bozeman IceDogs of the NAHL to the Hudson River Valley and the Army Black Knights of the Atlantic Hockey Association.
“Playing in the NHL has always been a dream of mine,” McKelvie replied when asked if pro hockey was in the back of his mind when he made the decision to attend West Point. “I hope to still get there someday. I knew that by going to West Point it would be a tough road but at the same time I felt it was definitely a road I wanted to try.”
The 2009 United States Military Academy (West Point) graduate signed with the B’s as an undrafted free agent a little over two years ago. However, after he reported to Boston training camp the following September, he discovered that the NHL dream would have to take a little longer. A change in Department of Defense policy required him to instead serve two full years on active duty before he could join the Bruins organization and try to earn a spot in their system as a pro athlete.
“At the time the rules were a little different,” he said. “At the same time, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think it was a great opportunity that helped me mature as a person and helped me find who I am as a person and it was just a great overall experience.”
Part of who McKelvie is and the kind of toughness and perseverence that few among his peers in the game of hockey can relate to stems from the challenge that his schooling provided. West Point’s engineering-intensive curriculum and military training regimen provides a daunting test for any student, but when you factor in the time McKelvie and his Black Knights teammates had to devote to hockey as corps squad athletes, it isn’t surprising that the lieutenant-turned-Bruin has not given up in his pursuit of reaching the highest level in the sport.
“It provided unique challenges compared to other schools,” he said. “Not only was academics the primary focus, but the military aspect was more of a focus than athletics. So, trying to compete with all of these demands and still stay focused on academics, military and hockey was difficult, but it forces you to reevaluate your lifestyle and make priorities and it forces you to be a better person because when you put someone through that kind of pressure they either step up or they don’t.”
McKelvie’s first real eye-opening experience as a cadet started with “beast barracks”, the first phase at West Point, when new cadets are tested physically and mentally to see if they have the ability and commitment to complete the academy’s grueling four-year curriculum of demanding academics and training. For the uninitiated, it is often a harsh, unforgiving process that quickly weeds out those who are not ready to meet the challenges and requirements that leading troops entails.
“Tough,” McKelvie said when asked what came to mind when he thought of beast barracks. “It is definitely tough, but again, everything in the military is for a purpose and beast barracks is for a purpose, which is to instill discipline and I think that translates to every area of your life when you go through that.”
Although disappointed not to be able to begin his career right away, McKelvie worked at his alma mater until he got orders to Fort Benning, Ga., home to the Maneuver Center of Excellence, where the infantry and armor forces are trained, along with the Rangers and airborne school. There, he completed the infantry officer basic course and remained on station to complete his service obligation. As company executive officer, he later helped to provide leadership for and train hundreds of soldiers who went through basic and advanced training at Sand Hill on Fort Benning.
“It’s unbelievable watching that transformation of these 18- and 19-year-old kid coming into the army,” McKelvie said of his time in the training environment that transforms civilians into soldiers. “Seeing them make that sacrifice knowing that more than likely, in a year, they’ll be in war. To see them mature as young men and women is unbelievable.”
While his duties in the training brigade there kept him busy, McKelvie still found time to go down to the Columbus (Ga.) Civic Center where the pro Columbus Cottonmouths of the SPHL plays its games. There he was able to skate with former pro players and other hockey enthusiasts to at least keep his legs fresh and mind engaged on his ultimate objective of one day trying to make the Bruins roster.
“I skated with some of the guys down there and it was good,” he said. “Obviously, I wasn’t on the ice as much as I would like. Sometimes it would be only two or three times a month, but I just tried to take every advantage of every opportunity I had to skate.”
McKelvie is blessed with natural speed and superb agility, having won the fastest skater competition at the 2009 Frozen Four skills competition in Washington, D.C. (his brother Chris along with former Boston prospectMatt Dalton, was a member of the Bemidji State Beavers team that played Cinderella to reach the tourney before falling to Miami University in the semi-final. That Miami team also featured B’s prospect Carter Camper.) He also has battled a shoulder injury that has required several surgeries in the past several years.
Yet through it all, with the mindset of an infantryman, he stayed on course to eventually arrive in Boston. He has myriad hurdles to overcome if he wants to make the NHL roster and stick, but just being here with the chance to compete is all McKelvie wanted. He’s gotten that opportunity, and perhaps as a reward for his dedication and as an acknowledgement of his personal qualifications, McKelvie is wearing an ‘A’ for the B’s in the two rookie games against the Islanders.
“The Army teaches you how to be a leader; it teaches you how to lead under pressure,” he said, reflecting on one of the biggest lessons learned from his previous two years. “I’ve never been in the corporate world, but I don’t know that you get that (as you do) a young lieutenant or young staff sergeant with those responsibilities.
“I think that’s the biggest takeaway: just watching people lead and following their lead and trying to set the example every day.”
He hasn’t looked out of place in his first real pro camp, and with more work and development, McKelvie could apply the lessons he learned at West Point and in the pine forests of southwest Georgia into a place on Boston’s blue line.