For most young hockey players, the only dream they have when they get older is to have the chance to play professional hockey. There is no other goal and there is nothing else that they want to work towards. Sometimes that goal includes college hockey. When you’re thinking of college hockey programs with a history of launching players into professional hockey, you usually would not think of West Point.
Despite that, West Point was exactly where Zach McKelvie chose to play his college hockey. At that point in his life, he wanted to play hockey but he also wanted to attend a service academy. Since he wanted to attend a service academy, he was looking at either entering the Army or the Air Force. Those were the two schools that also offered Division 1 hockey programs. It was an immediate fit.
“It was just a really unique opportunity. West Point just happened to be recruiting me out of juniors. I went on a visit and within the first five minutes of me stepping on campus, I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” McKelvie said. “There were more factors than that, obviously. But it’s an unbelievable place and the people there are unbelievable. Maybe it wasn’t the best decision for hockey, but I know that I’ll never regret going there and it was the best thing for my life going forward.”
This experience of attending West Point has obviously shaped McKelvie’s outlook on life and his approach to his hockey career. It has made him see things in a different way than other players. Having served, he knows a lot of people that put their lives on the line every day for their professions.
“Sometimes when you’re growing up, you think that’s the only thing. You think if you don’t make pro, you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life,” McKelvie said. “Having the experiences with the military does put things in perspective. You have to be a good professional.”
After graduating from West Point, there were opportunities for him to play professional hockey, but McKelvie had to serve his country. He had know that making the decision to go to West Point would mean that his hockey career would get put on hold. He was lucky, though, and he got another opportunity.
“I was in the Army on active duty for about two and a half years. The opportunity to play came up again. I had some people in the military who really helped me and supported me through the process,” said McKelvie. “They kind of encouraged me to do it and if they hadn’t been behind me, there’s no way I would have done it. I wanted to play and it just kind of worked out right. I’m fortunate they supported me.”
With the support of the officers around him, he pursued a professional hockey career beginning with the 2011-2012 season. He was able to sign with the Boston Bruins and spend time between the Providence Bruins in the AHL and the Reading Royals of the ECHL. In July of 2012, he signed with the Abbotsford Heat, AHL affiliate of the Calgary Flames. In the 2012-2013 season with the Heat, McKelvie racked up 112 penalty minutes in 52 games. It was a team high and a career high for him.
“It was more just that I found myself in the role several times during the year. I don’t find myself to be a fighter or an intimidating presence on the ice,” McKelvie said. “I tried to step in in situations where my team needed an extra boost or extra motivation in the game.”
Even though McKelvie ended the season with a career high 12 fighting majors, he does not see himself as a fighter. He was just doing what he needed to do for his team last season. He likes to be a player that does what he has to for his team. What kind of player does he see himself as?
“I try to be a stay at home defenseman that is consistent and can be relied on in any situation like penalty kill or even strength,” McKelvie said. “I try to pride myself on being able to play the same every single night. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t unfortunately.”
While he was in Abbotsford, McKelvie made just as much of an impact off the ice as he did on the ice. Through his community efforts, he earned the Heat’s nomination for AHL Man of the Year. Formally known as the Yannick Dupre Memorial Award, it is an award given to one AHL player for outstanding community service The award winner is chosen from 30 players, one nominated from each team.
“I think it should be important for every athlete, not just in hockey. We have a pretty cool and unique opportunity to reach out to the community in Abbotsford. It’s a great place to play and the town loves us there,” said McKelvie. “I think our team has done a great job of reaching out. It was cool to be the nominee but there are a bunch of guys that did the same thing as me. We had a great bunch of guys in terms of community service.”
In the AHL, it’s important to build a solid relationship in the community. The Heat have done an excellent job of that in Abbotsford. It helps build a fan base for the team and show that the team cares about what happens in the surrounding area.
“It’s still relatively new to the community even though hockey is not. Any time we can get out there and first and foremost, help the community, it’s obviously a good thing,” McKelvie said. “But it also helps promote the team and to show what we’re all about as an organization. It goes to show that the organization has the right priorities.”
Although he engaged in a number of community events through the Abbotsford Heat, there was one unique event that stuck out. It pitted the team’s fitness trainer, Adam Sippel, against McKelvie in a test of endurance and agility. The winner would get to donate $2000 to the charity of their choice.
“They came up with an idea and it was actually a really cool event. I was disappointed with the outcome on my end because I didn’t win,” McKelvie said lightly. “Adam was a great competitor. We were able to raise a couple thousand dollars for charity and pretty much the whole team was there.”
Hockey has always been a family game for McKelvie. He and his twin brother, Chris are both playing in the AHL at the moment. The two played junior hockey together when they were younger, but their paths separated when it came to college. When Zach McKelvie went to West Point, Chris McKelvie went to Bemidji State. Now the two have the chance to play each other.
“It’s fun being able to share that experience with him. I know there’s several other brothers around the league and the NHL. It’s a pretty cool experience to play against them or even with them,” said McKelvie. “When I was with Providence during the 2011-2012 season, he was with Connecticut so we played against each other something like 6 times. It was a lot of fun.”
McKelvie has had a lot of coaches that have influence him during his career, but his biggest influence remains his family. The support of a family means a lot to a hockey player. Parents usually have to make a lot of sacrifices to help their kids play the game that they love. This family was no different.
“My dad grew up in a hockey family and played through college. It’s not that he taught me everything I know about hockey, but he encouraged my brothers and I to play,” McKelvie said. “He told us that if we wanted to play professional hockey then we should go for it. He never held us back and always encouraged us. That was probably the biggest influence, especially from a support standpoint.”
It is unclear where Zach McKelvie will continue his career for the 2013-2014 season, but one thing is clear. He will be a credit to whatever organization he ends up with. He is a player that you can depend on when he is on the ice, whether he is acting as a defenseman or finding himself in a more physical role. He is also more than willing to support charities and the community off the ice. Wherever he signs, fans are sure to be happy to have him.