Before pro hockey, Alaska defenseman played for Army
By Doyle Woody | Anchorage Daily News | Published: April 23, 2014
With rare exceptions, a North American hockey player's path to the pros follows a template: You develop your game with a college or major-junior team and then head directly to a pay-for-play circuit.
Of the 22 North Americans on the Alaska Aces' postseason roster, 11 guys went the college route, nine took the major-junior journey and one — center Jordan Morrison — did both.
Zach McKelvie is the outlier.
After college, he was out of hockey for two years before he turned pro, which makes him the rare exception.
And when McKelvie did start drawing a paycheck in hockey, he did so as another rarity: A 26-year-old rookie.
McKelvie's unusual route to pro rinks happened because he played college hockey for Army, an undertaking that included a five-year commitment to the military after he graduated from West Point.
But a Department of Defense policy permitted McKelvie after two years of service to apply for early withdrawal from active-duty military service — he was a 2nd lieutenant at the time — to play professional sports. McKelvie was granted separation in September 2011.
Growing up in the Twin Cities suburb of New Brighton, McKelvie loved hockey and was intrigued by the military.
"I've had the best of both worlds,'' he said. "The Army has the most unbelievable people I've ever met, the most selfless people. And, obviously, I love hockey.
"To make it at this level, you have to be internally motivated. And to be successful in the military, no one's going to hold your hand, so you have to be motivated there too.''
As the Aces jumped to a 2-0 lead in their ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs opening-round, best-of-7 series against the Las Vegas Wranglers, the 6-foot-2, 204-pound McKelvie proved himself a sturdy, physical presence among a group of blueliners who lend Alaska impressive depth. McKelvie has an assist and an even rating in the playoffs after earning 3-1—4 and plus-5 totals in 22 regular-season games for the Aces.
Mostly, McKelvie is just happy to be playing. He suffered a knee injury last fall in training camp with the Abbotsford Heat, the Aces' American Hockey League affiliate and endured a similar injury to his other knee during the regular season. That limited him to 13 games with the Heat, who used him at left wing. He's become a fixture in Alaska's lineup at his natural position, defense.
Sure, he gets occasional ribbing from teammates about being 29 and in just his third season as a pro. But McKelvie said he feels like he's found a home.
"This is where I need to be,'' McKelvie said. "This hockey is good hockey. When I first got sent here, I was frustrated, but at the same time I saw it as a great opportunity.
"It's honestly been the most fun two months I've had in hockey.''
Hockey threads through the McKelvie boys. Zach's older brother Ryan, 32, played at Minnesota State-Mankato and is a former UAA assistant coach and the current head coach of Division III Lake Forest College (Ill.). Zach's twin, Chris, is a winger with the AHL's Albany Devils.
McKelvie played four seasons at Army, captained the Black Knights as a senior, racked up 56 points in 134 career games and graduated with a degree in business management. After that, he was stationed at Fort Benning (Ga.), where he was an executive officer for soldiers in basic training and played the occasional men's league game in nearby Columbus.
McKelvie said his commanding general's support was pivotal in being granted his release to pursue hockey in 2011, just days before he began training camp with the Boston Bruins. He was fit — conditioning is a key component in infantry — but rusty at the rink.
"Your mind remembers being able to do things at a certain skill level and at a certain speed, and then when you can't, it's frustrating,'' McKelvie said. "In hockey everything is repetition, and your skills are perishable.
"My learning curve had to be steeper because one, I hadn't played in two years and, two, because I was a rookie and I was 26 years old. But I was playing in rookie games and exhibition games for Boston before I knew it, and I wasn't thinking. I was just playing.''
McKelvie played most of the 2011-12 season for the AHL's Providence Bruins, with some brief time at ECHL Reading. He played the 2012-13 season for Abbotsford and began this season with the Heat before being assigned to the Aces.
McKelvie's wife, Lauryn, who he met at West Point, is a captain stationed in the Lower 48, so when they are apart during the hockey season they frequently text and chat on FaceTime.
Now, McKelvie finds himself in the postseason, which hockey players cherish. He loves that he got to spend time in two worlds — the military and hockey.
"I wouldn't trade the experiences I had in the Army,'' McKelvie said. "And they were unbelievably generous to let me play pro hockey. I've been blessed.''