NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. -- When a youth hockey player grows up in the New England area, competing in Hockey East or playing in the Beanpot is always the ultimate dream.
Of course, the Northeastern United States is also home to some of the nation's top programs outside of the conference. Nine outstanding New Englanders took advantage of the unique opportunity to put on the gold and black sweater of the Army Black Knights and attend the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
The group of players from the region had the chance to relive their childhood dreams for a night and take on Merrimack College at J. Thom Lawler Arena in North Andover on Saturday night.
Head coach Brian Riley and Army have taken the trip to Merrimack during each of the last three seasons, and the team has performed very respectably of late, despite an 0-13-0 record all-time in the building. Riley, who continues a 70-plus-year tradition of running the program within his family, sees the benefits of treating his locals to a homecoming of sorts in Hockey East.
"For them, any time you can come home in this area, it is a thrill," Riley said. "For the families in the stands. I am sure it was an experience those local guys never forget to play in front of their hometown fans, for sure."
Coach himself is no stranger to the campus and Mark Dennehy's Merrimack program as Riley's daughter Danielle is a sophomore on the Warriors' women's lacrosse team.
The two teams have committed to keeping the matchup on the schedule over recent years, as Dennehy calls it a "very humbling experience" for his team to play a squad with such dignity, class, and respect for the sport.
Although the result was a 4-2 loss for Army on Saturday, the experience was a memorable one that brought childhood memories back for the locals.
Freshman Joe Bruckler was the most proximate Black Knight to the Merrimack campus, growing up in nearby Burlington, Mass., but did not get to appear in the game. His family and numerous friends were in attendance at a very familiar building in his hockey career.
"It is a great feeling to play back home around people I know," Bruckler said. "It's also a great feeling to be with my new team, my new family. ... It's a big positive for me. I grew up playing games in this arena many times when I was growing up playing AAA."
"It was awesome coming back here. It brought a lot of memories back, but just having the college atmosphere added to it was just a great experience. I was like 'Wow, I'm back at home' but it's a college game. That was the first thought."
New England is well represented in the team's leadership as well as junior alternate captains Josh Richards (Lee, N.H.) and Mac Lalor (Needham, Mass.) call the region home and competed for a pair of the area's well-known junior programs, in the South Shore Kings and the Junior Bruins, respectively.
"It's awesome," Lalor said. "We've come up and played close games. It's been a great atmosphere. ... I, obviously, grew up around these teams, watching them play. It's always fun to come back and play in these rinks against those guys...and just being in the Boston area."
Of course, life as a cadet is non-stop and extends far beyond the classroom and hockey rink. Lalor spent his summer participating in pre-deployment training at Fort Irwin in California as a requirement for a Cadet Troop Leadership Training program.
During his time there, he shadowed First Lieutenant Chris Spracklen, who was also a former Black Knight hockey player, for three weeks. "I was pretty much in the desert in a tank for three weeks," the Needham native and former St. Sebastian's Arrow added. "I learned a ton, and I don't think I would have learned something like that anywhere else."
Back on the ice, the opportunity to skate at Kelley Rink at Boston College will be one that Lalor, especially, will be rearing and ready for. As a very proximate native to the Chestnut Hill campus, he remembers growing up as a fan of the Eagles as well as skating for the Boston Junior Eagles during his early hockey-playing years.
"We were always big fans of BC. ... It's only ten minutes from my house. It's going to be awesome, going in there and playing in front of a lot of fans."
Because of the rigor of the West Point schedule, there are no overnight road trips. The bus departed North Andover immediately following the game to return to the Academy for the start of a new week.
The Black Knights travel to their fair share of local venues to take on their Atlantic Hockey opponents, including a contest with UConn next Friday in Storrs.
Despite that, for Bruckler, Lalor and the other locals on
the roster, they will get to live that Hockey East dream one more
time Nov. 10 at BC. The rigors of everyday life at West Point will
be gone for that one day, for another return home. It can not come