Red tape delayed Zach McKelvie's chance to be on the blue line this season. And now, his dream of playing professional hockey is all but dead.
"I was a bit of an underdog to begin with," McKelvie told FanHouse. "I'm really looking at an uphill battle now."
McKelvie is a 24-year-old West Point graduate who was originally given the green light by his superiors with the United States Army last summer to sign a one-year contract with the Boston Bruins. He believed he went through the process respectfully, adhering to military policy every step of the way. However, just as McKelvie was to begin his pro career in October -- likely with the Bruins' top minor league affiliate in Providence -- West Point officials told him they needed time to "re-evaluate" their decision.
While the cadet/defenseman could have been playing in Providence and learning if he truly belonged in pro hockey, the Army ordered him to wait on the sidelines as it reconsidered the approval.
Under review were the Alternative Services guidelines that allowed exceptional athletes like McKelvie to play professional sports for two years. After those two seasons, West Point would then decide whether McKelvie could continue his NHL pursuit or return to the military. During the process, the young man from Minnesota served as an intern for the Army hockey team -- the team he captained in 2008-09.
The Army recently decided that, based on Department of Defense rules, McKelvie must first serve for two years. He will report to Fort Benning in April. Even if he has access to an ice rink in Georgia, there is little chance his hockey skills will remain sharp enough after two years without coaching to get another look from an NHL team.
"It's disappointing, devastating," said McKelvie, who won the Faster Skater competition at the NCAA Frozen Four in 2009. "The toughest part is that the Army had told me I had permission to sign with an NHL team. I wanted to honor the Army by seeing if I could someday make the Bruins at the highest level of pro hockey. The military spends millions of dollars sponsoring NASCAR and other sports. I thought I could be a human billboard for the great education and all the incredible things that come with being in the U.S. Army."
What team athletes like McKelvie and Detroit Lions draft pick Caleb Campbell have trouble digesting is the military's stance on athletes in Olympic sports. Under the "World Class Athlete Program," the Army allows boxers, archers, sprinters and other prospective Olympians the opportunity to train all year. Deciding he couldn't beat the system, Campbell joined the program by trying out for the U.S. bobsled team.
"The rules are very inconsistent," said McKelvie.
Despite seeing his dream of a hockey career all but eliminated, McKelvie will honor his military commitment and move on with only deep appreciation and respect for the Army.
"When all is said and done, the Army has made me the man I am today," said McKelvie. "It has given me a great education and a lifetime of experiences. I'm disappointed because the hockey decision is still fresh, but I'll always be an outspoken supporter of West Point."
While his twin brother Chris plays his senior season at Bemidji State, Zach's older brother has joined the coaching ranks, first as a graduate assistant at Bemidji and now in the North American Hockey League. The West Point graduate has taken notice.