Anytime Navy plays Maryland in a sporting event, it’s a big deal.
This Friday will be no exception as the in-state rivals square off in ice hockey during the opening round of the 44th Crab Pot Tournament. When the Mids take the home ice against the Terrapins at the Brigade Sports Complex, they will do so with a little more swagger.
Victories over George Mason and Towson last weekend qualified Navy for the American Collegiate Hockey Association national tournament for the first time since 2016.However, if a Navy player breaks a stick against Maryland or at nationals in St. Louis, they must pay to replace it themselves. That’s because this highly successful program is not one of the 33 Division I varsity sports offered at the academy. Navy hockey is a club sport, and for its players and part-time coaches, the rules are a bit different even though the joy of competing is as fun as ever.
Navy has fielded a club ice hockey program since the 1960s, and it currently has three teams — two men’s and one women’s. Navy men’s hockey competes at the Division I level and is a member of the eight-team Eastern Collegiate Hockey Association. That organization is affiliated with the ACHA, which consists of 72 colleges and universities that play for a national championship each year.
By virtue of winning the ECHA regular season crown, Navy (13-8) will be one of only 20 teams vying for the ACHA national championship, held March 10-15.“It’s not something that happens every year,” Navy coach Kevin Rooney said. “It’s difficult to reach this pinnacle, and as a club sport, going to nationals is a big deal for the academy.”
In between the Crab Pot and nationals, Navy has another chance to claim some hardware when it hosts at least one playoff game in the ECHA end-of-season tournament on Feb. 26. That contest, like all Navy home contests, will be held at the Brigade Sports Complex that is located across the Severn River on the same property as the Naval Academy Golf Club.
If the Midshipmen’s last two home games are any indication, it may be difficult to find a seat this Friday. Over 600 people filled the 470-seat venue for Navy’s last home game, a 7-0 victory over Towson.
“When football ends, the crowds pick up,” said Rooney, who has been coaching the men’s ice hockey program for the past five years and is not a salaried employee like Navy’s varsity coaches.
Instead, Rooney and other Navy club coaches receive a stipend that he says, “you couldn’t pay your monthly bills with.” That is why Rooney and his assistant coach, Rob Bolton, have full-time jobs — the former as a franchise consultant and the latter as an orthodontist.
It’s the love of the game, and the chance to help mold future leaders, that motivates Rooney.
“It’s truly my love. I have a real passion for training, educating and building leaders. It intensely motivates me,” said Rooney. “At the Naval Academy, it allows me to do a lot more than just build hockey players, but really work with some of the true leaders in the country.”
One of the leaders that makes Navy go is senior captain and starting defenseman Brendan Reynolds.
Reynolds is typical of most Navy hockey players. He started skating before grammar school and competed at every organized level of the sport through his high school years. However, the Madison, Connecticut, native knew early on that hockey would take a back seat to a much more important mission.“[My parents] always taught me and my brothers to always give back,” Reynolds said. “My ultimate goal was always to serve our country and to come [to the Naval Academy]. Playing hockey here is just a very lucky benefit.”
The diverse and sometimes rowdy fan base at home games also includes, at times, a large gathering of midshipmen who stand along the glass and taunt the opposing team.“
They are awesome. They love to get in the ear of the goalie. I think it is hilarious,” said Reynolds, Navy’s top defender and one of the leading scorers with nine goals and 11 assists this season. “I have a lot of friends who come to the games.”
Meanwhile, Navy goaltender Charles Doherty has been stingy in front of the net. The junior from River Forrest, Illinois, has posted a .924 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average in compiling an 11-5 record.“
Charles is probably one of the best goaltenders in the ECHA,” Rooney said. “He is hands down the quickest goaltender I’ve seen in all of my years in hockey.”
Rooney also had high praise for forwards Michael Rockovich and John Mullen. Rockovich leads the Midshipmen with 18 assists, while Mullen tops the team with 16 goals in 18 games.
Rooney called Rockovich, a sophomore from Jamison, Pennsylvania, the “smartest player on the team.” He described Mullen, a junior from Chicago, as Navy’s “power forward” because he is known for delivering “some good clean hits.”
Both Rooney and Reynolds said they would love to see Navy men’s ice hockey take the next step and become the 34th varsity sport at the academy. That would enable the team to compete against service academy rivals Army and Air Force, both of which field varsity programs.
However, both players acknowledged that decision is above their level.“
I’ve been asked by a lot of other hockey teams to become a varsity team. It’s a decision made by the academy itself. Personally, I know there is enough interest in the area to make that happen,” Rooney said.
“I would love to see that happen, but it’s one of those things we can’t control,” Reynolds added. “Our focus is more internal. We are really blessed with the facility we have and our ice time. I’m just very grateful for all of the experiences me and my teammates have shared together.”
According to Scott Strasemeier, Navy’s senior associate athletic director for sports information, making men’s ice hockey a varsity sport has been “studied extensively on multiple occasions.”
Strasemeier said the Naval Academy Athletic Association leadership has concluded that “at this time it’s just not feasible financially for multiple reasons for a self-sustaining business that already has the second most varsity sports programs among schools that play in the football bowl subdivision.”