100 games a season: Gare Joyce's puck blog

Just like being in the scouts' & press' lounge, without the bad coffee and day-old Timbits

Location: Toronto

I've written for ESPN The Magazine and espn.com the last five years. My work has made the "notable" list of the Best American Sports Writing seven times and won four Canadian National Magazine Awards. My most recent book is Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts. I've written three other sports books: When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey's Cold War and Changed the Game; Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm; and The Only Ticket Off the Island: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Cold War: Freeze-out of the RMC-West Point Game

Interesting story in the Globe today by friend Mirtle about the possible end to one of hockey's richest traditions: Royal Military College vs West Point.


I've had a chance to see a couple of these and they were spectacles unlike any other in hockey. I'll pass along a story I did a few years back for Maclean's ... at the time I never suspected that the series might grind to halt. In retrospect, though, I could sense some of the tensions that led to this year's cancellation. And the Maurice kid in this story--a cousin or nephew (can't recall) of Paul Maurice.

Replaying a Border War
GARE JOYCE finds little camaraderie at the 73rd West Point-RMC hockey game

ON FRIDAY AFTERNOON West Point sent its regrets: the cadets on the tae kwon do squad and the debating team would not be making the trip to Kingston, Ont., for their annual mid-winter exchange with the Royal Military College. You could have read too much into this. You could have put it down to the ever-frostier relations between the U.S. and Canada. As it turned out, the last-minute cancellation did have something to do with a chill -- an ice storm that made roads in upstate New York too treacherous for the six-hour bus ride from the U.S. military academy. Fortunately, the centrepiece of the weekend would go on as scheduled -- the 73rd instalment of the West Point-RMC hockey game. The Black Knights had made the trip Thursday and thus avoided the first cancellation of the event since RMC shut down during the Second World War. Army-RMC goes almost as far back as the Habs vs. the Maple Leafs, and lays claim to being the oldest continually contested sports event between the U.S. and Canada.

Even if it's not the oldest, it would rank among the most historic. And curious. In the beginning, RMC's commandant, Maj.-Gen. Sir Archibald Macdonnell, and West Point's superintendent, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, envisioned an exhibition alternating between the campuses at West Point, N.Y., and Kingston, one that promoted camaraderie and sportsmanship. The teams met for the first time, outdoors on natural ice, at West Point on Feb. 3, 1923, with RMC winning 3-0. The Canadians won the next 14 contests, but not a lot of weight was given to winning or losing. West Point-RMC remained a largely social and gentlemanly affair for a quarter-century -- as a point of honour, the teams played games without penalties being called until a raucous contest in 1954.

The rivalry ramped up thereafter. "For our team, the RMC game became the equivalent of the football program's game against Navy," said West Point's current hockey coach, Rob Riley. Going into the 2004 game, the series stood at 36 wins for West Point, 28 wins for RMC and six ties. Retired Maj. Bill Oliver, a recruiter for RMC's varsity sports programs and the hockey program's resident historian, offers a familiar metaphor for the rivalry between the military academies' hockey programs. "It's war," Oliver says. "Huge hits. Sometimes fights. The teams respect each other, but for those 60 minutes they really don't like each other."

On the surface, RMC seems overmatched. Its student body is about 1,000; the USMA's is five times that. RMC's overall athletic budget, including intramurals, is $750,000, which wouldn't even start to feed Army's football team. Oliver and the RMC Paladins' coach Kelly Nobes try to keep tabs on Tier II or Junior B players who might have the grades to get into RMC. Still, it's a tough sell, particularly with the minimum five years of required service after graduation. West Point's recruiters can point to a recent graduate, Dan Hinote, who was allowed to defer his required five-year hitch so he can play with the Colorado Avalanche. "If you went through the West Point roster, you'd see that all but one of the players are recruited," Oliver says. "West Point is a lot more like other top U.S. college programs than like us in that way."

This year the odds looked even longer for RMC. Going into the West Point game, the Paladins had won only two of their 20 games against Ontario university teams. "We're a defensive team that struggles to score," Nobes said. "The one thing is, I can count on our players being up for this game." That's true of any game these days pitting Canadian teams against Americans, from the Olympics right down to peewee tournaments.

Paladins' captain Matt Maurice, a fourth-year electrical engineering major from Burlington, Ont., suggested that something more was in play for RMC. "There is a difference between West Point cadets and us," said the 22-year-old Maurice. "I have friends who are just back from Afghanistan, but what's happening in politics isn't on our minds. We know we could be serving beside these guys in four or five years, but our roles are different. We're the peacekeepers."

On Saturday afternoon the RMC student body came to the rink in full dress and filed into their seats in orderly fashion. The seats behind the RMC bench were reserved for VIPs, square-jawed, spit-and-polish sorts from both sides of the border, stars and bars all around. The atmosphere was rowdier than you'd find at the oh-so-traditional Army-Navy football game. You'd never hear the midshipmen from Annapolis chanting: "West Point sucks." The college's band featured not just the usual brass and drums but also a guitarist who played selections by AC/DC, Pink Floyd and Nirvana.

The game itself was less a march in formation than a mosh pit, lots of contact and play that occasionally lapsed into anarchy. After a period the teams had a goal apiece and, although the visitors were on average a couple of inches taller and 15 lb. heavier, there was little to choose between the teams in the skill department.
In the second period West Point ran out to a 3-1 lead, but it could have been worse. Paladins' goaltender Blair Robertson, a first-year science and engineering major from Outlook, Sask., made a few spectacular saves in staving off an Army onslaught. "Robertson gave us a chance to win this game," coach Nobes said.

Three minutes into the third period, RMC pulled within a goal of Army when right winger Matt Reid, a masters student in mechanical engineering, tipped a point shot past West Point goaltender Brad Roberts. Though the Paladins dominated play the rest of the way, they couldn't beat Roberts for a tying goal. In the last few shifts, a couple of fights broke out and trash-talking ensued. Maurice might one day serve as a peacekeeper, but on Saturday afternoon the role fell to Greg Kimmerly, a referee on loan from the National Hockey League. It was all Kimmerly could do to control the game. Even after the final buzzer, he was breaking up skirmishes that threatened to dissolve into a battle royale. After the players had a chance to cool down and soak up some polite applause, the teams lined up for the ceremonial handshake. Though the game is billed as a friendly exhibition, the smiles were forced and teeth gritted.

Riley knows West Point and its cadets as well as any civilian can. He has coached the Army team for the last 17 seasons. Before that, his father, Jack, coached the team for more than two decades. Riley says his players, unlike Maurice, are giving a lot of thought to politics. "There is a different atmosphere around the team when there's a major conflict going on," Riley said. "I see a difference with our fourth-year players. They all have friends who have shipped out."

Army captain Mike McLean, a fourth-year defenceman, agrees. "Any player in his final year at West Point thinks about these being the last real games that he'll ever play," says McLean who, like Maurice, is planning on earning his pilot's wings. "We're getting e-mails from our old teammates who are in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know we might be called, and it makes us appreciate something like this game even more."

After the game, West Point again sent its regrets: the team wasn't sticking around for any social festivities. While the cadets boarded the bus in their dress grays, normal relations resumed as officials discussed when to reschedule the events cancelled by the ice storm. But after the afternoon's action in Kingston, where like-minded young men became mortal enemies for 60 minutes, an exhibition to promote camaraderie looked more like a once-a-year war game.