FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Dec. 20, 2017) -- A capacity crowd watched the All-Army Ice Hockey Team challenge their counterparts from the Canadian Armed Forces in international competition Dec. 16 in the Watertown Municipal Arena, near Fort Drum.
The U.S. team won, 4-2, with Capt. Andrew Starczewski, from Fort Sill, La., scoring twice, to include the game-clinching goal.
"It was a lot of fun. It was almost like getting that college hockey atmosphere back again for some of us," said Starczewski, who played Division I hockey at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point until he was commissioned in 2013. "The crowd was buzzing, and that makes it a lot easier when you have that many people behind you."
On his two goals, Starczewski said he was simply in the right place at the right time, and he credited his two linemates who fed him the scoring opportunities.
"Mostly, it was just great chemistry among us," he said. "If I'm not scoring, then I'm not doing my job for them."
The two other All-Army goals were scored by Maj. Timothy Murphy, of the Massachusetts National Guard, and Capt. Cody Omilusik, assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Two assists were recorded by 1st Lt. Jonathan Hearn and Sgt. Carson Omilusik, while Murphy and 1st Lt. Charles Beaton both aided the team with one apiece.
Capt. Jeffery Fearing, a company tactical officer at West Point, said that they didn't know what to expect when entering the game against an unfamiliar opponent.
"It was a really fun, physical hockey game," he said. "We have so much respect for the Canadian team and the Canadian Armed Forces, and for them to travel here to play, it was an honor for us. This was all about two military teams showing that they can come together, play hard and still be friends."
For the Canadians, Lt. Patrick Robichaud scored first with an assist by Sgt. Andrew Glessing. Sgt. Derek Desbiens scored the tying goal on a power play in the third period to threaten All-Army's momentum.
Assists were made by Cpl. Yannick Beaulieu and Sgt. Lance Browne.
The audience erupted every time players crashed into their opponents against the glass or tangled on the ice. As the referees separated them and called penalties, inevitably, smiles broke out on the players' faces.
"All of us are competitors and when it comes down to it, we're going to play hard between the whistles and have a couple of jabs here and there, but it's all in good fun and part of the game," Starczewski said.
The All-Army team had 42 shots on net while the Canadians recorded 17. Sharing net duties for the All-Army team were Pfc. Brendan Taylor, a military police correctional specialist from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and Spc. David San Clemente, an intelligence analyst from Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
"There's no doubt the energy of that crowd really pumped us up," Taylor said. "It was awesome packing the entire arena."
Taylor said that the Fort Drum and Watertown communities were supportive hosts during the trial camp, providing them with everything they needed to train and succeed on the ice.
San Clemente had a cheering section in the stands and online. His grandparents, Al and Sandra San Clemente, traveled from Shrewsbury, Mass., and a friend from Louisiana, were among the 1,500 in the stands. His 92-year-old grandfather, who played hockey until he was 89, serves as an inspiration to San Clemente.
"Having them here today means the world to me," San Clemente said. "My grandparents are both big hockey fans, and having them support me led to me playing as well as I did today."
San Clemente said his fiancé and her family from Florida were watching the game on the Facebook live feed, which amassed more than 4,600 views. San Clemente said his mother would see it from where his immediate Family is stationed overseas.
"First of all, it was a huge honor to represent ourselves, our units and America in this game," San Clemente said. "It was an honor to play against the Canadians, and winning was the best feeling."
The All-Army players managed to build a team from scratch during the three-week All-Army Sports trial camp at Fort Drum, and they went undefeated in all scrimmages.
"This tells you we were already a cohesive unit," San Clemente said. "If you put a group of Soldiers together, it doesn't matter where they come from, what their command structure is or what jobs they have, they will perform their jobs. We were tasked with playing the Canadian team and winning, and that's exactly what we did. We came together as Soldiers and athletes, and we won."
Starczewski said that the best way to describe the team was adaptable and resilient.
"We came here and hit the ground running," he said. "To play that level of hockey in that short of time is really something special, and it takes special guys to do it. The coaches did a great job of getting the right guys together. Everyone had a blast just being together and having fun."
Lt. Col. Kyle Upshaw, 10th Mountain Division (LI) deputy G9, attended every scrimmage, and he said that it was impressive to see how the team improved and bonded during the camp.
"You could tell the first couple of games that they were figuring things out, and then in the final game -- the big game -- they looked very comfortable on ice and were ready to show the Canadians that they had what it took to give them a real challenge. You could see how their passing and line changes got better each period of hockey they played."
Upshaw said that sports has a way of transcending all else -- age, rank, time in service, assignments -- and focuses on the love for the game. He said that watching the opening ceremonies, which featured a joint service color guard and a member of the 10th Mountain Division Band singing both countries' national anthems, was memorable.
"It took on an entirely new meaning knowing that both the American and Canadian players were also Soldiers and airmen, and realizing that they are willing to fight and die for their respective countries," Upshaw said. "Then, seeing the players giving each other hugs with huge smiles on their faces at the end of the game after they had played so hard against each other. It was a tough game, not an easy win for the All-Army team. But seeing that mutual respect and admiration they shared for each other immediately after the playing ended, that made me proud to be not only an American, but more proud to be an American Soldier."
Players said that there was some uncertainty during the trial camp about the future of All-Army Hockey, whether they would disband immediately after the exhibition or if this would be offered again next year. Fearing said there was no denying the stress they felt if they didn't do everything to the best of their ability.
If anyone was skeptical about whether that this was a viable program and if there were Soldier-athletes capable of playing competitive hockey, it was up to this team to dispel any doubts.
"Obviously, there was a lot of pressure on us to win, and I think we were feeling that," Fearing said. "But at the end of the day, we knew we would put a good product on the ice."
All-Army Sports officials said that Soldiers will have the chance to apply again next year to attend the training camp at Fort Drum.
Meanwhile, the current roster of players will reunite in January for a few days of practice at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before departing to Lithuania to compete in the 5th Baltic Military Winter Games.
Representing the U.S., the Soldier-athletes will challenge teams from countries to include Latvia, Estonia and the Ukraine.
"That was an early Christmas present for us, because we weren't expecting that when we first came up here," Starczewski said. "Wearing the Army colors is an absolute pleasure and honor to do so, but when we put that USA across our chest, it's a whole other thing. We're going to represent the U.S. against other countries, and I think that's going to be a blast."
Taylor said that after leaving Fort Drum he would return to his MP duties, but he will still enjoy six days of holiday leave.
"I'm going to keep training and get as much ice time as possible," he said. "When I heard we were going to Lithuania to represent the U.S., I think it's going to be a tremendous experience and give us a chance to show what this new team is about and what we can do moving forward."
To follow the All-Army Ice Hockey Team and learn more about the other sports programs available to Soldiers, visit www.facebook.com/TheAllArmySports/.