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Army West Point Hockey:

Legacy and Family in Action

By Kim McDermott ’87, WPAOG staff

Army Hockey Head coach Brian Riley wears two steel bracelets, one on each wrist. They bear the names of two graduates who have left an indelible mark on Riley. Leaving legacies to the program, and to the nation, were Major Thomas Kennedy ’00 and First Lieutenant Derek Hines ’03. Both officers were killed in action in Afghanistan: Hines on September 1, 2005 and Kennedy on August 8, 2012. The mention of their names clearly touches a nerve and sets off a passionate response that Riley has repeated many times over. He says, “I would go to the top of any mountain to talk about them.”

“One of the most important jobs I have is to make sure the legacies of our former players live on. I wear these bracelets in honor of that, and I will never take them off. These guys were my guys. They were obviously good hockey players, but more importantly, they were great people, young men and great leaders.” Riley does all he can to make sure his current players understand who Kennedy and Hines were, holding them up as models to emulate. Cadet Trevin Kozlowski ’21 says, “I can only hope to try and accomplish some of the great things that these great men have done.”

“Both had such team-first mentalities,” Riley says. “Neither were superstars, they just cared more for their teammates than themselves.” Riley believes that their selfless attitude as players carried over to their actions as leaders on the battlefield. He leverages every opportunity he can to speak about Kennedy and Hines and always ends with saying that he is certain of one thing, that “without a doubt, if they could speak now, they would say no matter how bad their loss was—how painful, how much they miss their families and friends—they would much rather have it happen to them than one of their soldiers.”

In the summer of 2017, Riley had a special opportunity to recognize Hines. The Cadet Basic Training detail that summer was designated Task Force Hines. Riley got to talk about Hines to the cadre and new cadets. He was especially honored to give a leadership talk to the cadre and present a real-world hero who modeled commitment, accountability and selfless leadership.

Photo Left: Against Air Force on January 10, Coach Riley and USMA Superintendent LTG Daryl Williams ’83 show spirit and the team prepares to take the ice.

Then in late January of 2018, with alumni players, family and friends of Kennedy, and the (then) Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, General Mark Milley in attendance, the team dedicated its newly renovated locker room to Kennedy. “This locker room honors the memory of, not a former Army Hockey player, but the memory of an American hero,” Riley stated during the ceremony.

The legacies of Kennedy and Hines serve as true reminders for cadet athletes that their lives and actions not only matter, they affect the future. Cadet Michael Wilson ’20 says, “As a player I look at those two men and feel a certain comfort. It’s one of those things that can’t be explained because they truly are two of the best men that have stepped foot on West Point. They laid down the ultimate sacrifice for our country. If there is anyone in this world that deserves endless respect it is [them].”

And the legacies left by “TK” and “Hinesy” (as they are commonly referred to) directly relate to why Army hockey players stay at West Point. While the opportunity to play Division I hockey is a big draw, over time they develop a deeper sense of the community they belong to. For patriotic young men, it means even more. Wilson says, “Each and every day I am around people who believe in the right things.” Cadet Kevin Dineen ’21 adds, “The lessons and people I am surrounded by everyday are what drew me to stay. Everyone here really wants you to become the best version of yourself.”

Riley didn’t always understand what the Academy was about. He admits that, growing up at West Point, he wondered why his father, Jack, kept his family at West Point for so long. (See page 48 for more information on the Riley family coaching legacy). But now, wrapping up his 16th season doing the same thing his father did—as his brother did between them—it is clear that Riley has truly internalized a deep respect for West Point. He appreciates how great it is to be around cadets, and loves knowing that he is shaping and developing them as players, cadets, future officers and as men. In fact, he claims it is “the most rewarding and humbling coaching job in all of sports.”

Riley says the biggest lesson he learned from Jack is to always show his players that he cares more for them as people than as players. He explains, “This creates a dynamic allowing the team to overcome any obstacle.” And for cadets at West Point for 47 months there will be obstacles, so they need that. Riley strives to create a team environment in which players realize there is “always somebody there for you.”

As a coach, Riley focuses his team on four main areas: physical toughness, mental toughness, discipline, and family. The first three are common to athletics in general. He realizes that West Point players, in particular, had better be physically tough, because that’s what opponents expect. Mental toughness he describes as having the capacity to “do whatever it takes to battle adversity to get through 60 minutes on the ice.” And discipline, he says, is just reinforcing “the way of life here at West Point.” He expects his players to have the discipline to come to practice and work hard, to play the right way, and to always work at lifting each other up. Riley emphasizes that teams lose when there is a lack of discipline.

Many programs talk about family, and it is always important for teammates to be there for each other. But being at West Point seems to take it to another level. Riley says that the Academy and the team are something that his players will be a part of forever, “until the day they die.” As an example, he describes how much it meant to him that when his father died in 2016, the players (both current and alumni) circled around him and his family—to lift them up. It is that caring for each other that means the most to him for his players to learn.

Riley quickly adds, “Caring doesn’t mean you can’t be tough and enforce standards,” and his players confirm that. Kozlowski says, “Coach demands excellence from his team and is not afraid to let you know when he feels you could be doing better. This is because he only wants the athletes on this team to be the best possible version of themselves both on and off the ice.”

“Xs and Os are important, but, in that 48th month when they leave, I want to feel good knowing that they’ll represent this program and West Point in a way it deserves.” Riley’s proudest moments aren’t the wins, he says. “It’s when I’m on the deck of the Holleder Center watching the bar pinnings, because I know that they are leaving as leaders that will make this institution proud.”

Players get a taste of that pride, even as cadets. Kozlowski says, “Being able to represent not only the United States Military Academy but the Army as a whole is something incredibly special to me. Whenever I pull the jersey over my head, the first thing I do is look down at the word ARMY across my chest. This reminds me that I am playing for something bigger than myself.”

They are playing for something bigger than themselves, and Riley will never forget this. Every morning, as Head Coach Brian Riley drives past the West Point Cemetery, he says something to one of the fallen who rests there—Kennedy. At a lot of schools, losing games is a coach’s biggest fear. For Riley, this is not the case. He says his biggest fear is to lose a player. “I wear two KIA bracelets,” he says. “I don’t have any more wrists.”

The Riley Family: Army’s Hat Trick

Photo: Former head coach Rob Riley and then-assistant coach Brian Riley in action during a game

A Riley has been at the helm of the Army Hockey program for the better part of the last seven decades, serving as the 14th, 15th and 16th head coaches. From 1950 to 1986, Jack Riley compiled a 542-343-20 record. During his tenure at West Point, Jack Riley also coached the 1960 U.S. Olympic Hockey team to its first gold medal. Upon Jack’s retirement, his son Rob Riley became the head coach. He led the program, accruing over 300 wins in 18 years. In 2004, it seemed completely appropriate to ask Rob’s assistant coach—his younger brother Brian—to fill the spot. Brian will soon cross the 200-win threshold. The Riley family legacy will be one of success and brotherhood. They have shown an abiding respect and love for the generations of young men they have coached and, since 1950, have given the Army Hockey Family a place to call home.

Printed in West Point magazine, Spring 2020, all rights reserved.