For some people, the ability to lead is innate. They can captivate a group, while still getting the most out of each individual. They’re born with the ability to influence others. They stare challenges in the face and attack them head on with a positive attitude. A leader first, hockey player second – both roles come naturally for former ECHL player Zach McKelvie.
A Minnesota native, McKelvie was recruited by West Point during his time with the Bozeman IceDogs of the NAHL. “I wanted to go to a good school and I wanted to go somewhere different. So when West Point brought me on a visit, I was instantly like ‘I gotta try this place, it’s unique, it’s all about leadership,’” McKelvie recalled.
It’s clear that McKelvie embraced the challenge of a service academy head on, and was able to successfully balance the daily academic and military demands of West Point with a successful four seasons on the ice for Army Hockey. He served as alternate captain as a junior, and captain his senior season (2008-09). The Atlantic Hockey Association’s Defenseman of the Year in 2008, he was also a two-time AHA First Team selection (2008, 2009). In 2009, McKelvie received the Henry “Hal” Beukema Award as Army’s Most Valuable Player. The accolades didn’t stop there. In 2009, he earned the Mike Krzysewski Teaching Character Through Sport Award, which recognizes West Point athletes and coaches on their outstanding commitment to the development of noble character through athletic participation and leadership.
A leader among the world’s best, McKelvie affirms, “The lessons that I learned as a hockey player were probably the most valuable lessons that I ever learned in my life….when you get the opportunity to lead at West Point, those are things that definitely stick with you throughout your life.”
While other hockey players his age were preparing to get their professional hockey careers underway, McKelvie was preparing to fulfill his commitment to serve the United States, despite having signed a pro contract with the Boston Bruins. The Department of Defense policy at the time required that he fulfill his service obligations first.
McKelvie’s first job in the Army was as an Executive Officer in an Infantry company stationed at Fort Benning, GA. “It was a great experience, it was a lot like coaching actually. You get to work with young men and teach them how to be Infantrymen,” he described.
Busy with his new profession, McKelvie was only playing hockey at this point about once a month in a men’s league, with his potential pro hockey career fading towards the back of his mind, “It was kind of an afterthought – if it happens, great, if it doesn’t, OK. I was enjoying what I was doing in the Army.”
Call it luck, call it timing, call it the Hockey Gods working their magic, but one of the other gentlemen playing in the men’s league was a Major in the Army, who happened to work for Fort Benning’s Commanding General. After hearing that McKelvie had signed a contract with the Bruins, he offered to set McKelvie up with a meeting with the Commanding General. The meeting set things in motion for McKelvie to explore his potential as a professional hockey player.
Despite the delay on getting his pro hockey career started, McKelvie credits the Army for giving him the chance to pursue his dream. “The Army is really incredible. They want people to capitalize on different opportunities, and they really value different skill sets. So I think they saw an opportunity for me to pursue a professional career in hockey, and they’re like, this is great, go for it. So I appreciate the Army obviously letting me do that, and all the people who made that happen.”
While many professional hockey players his age had already logged a few years pro experience on the ice, Zach McKelvie was a rookie at 26 years old. Though he had professional experience, it was on land, donning an Army uniform, rather than on ice in an ECHL or AHL sweater.
In the 2011-12 season, McKelvie’s rookie year, he spent time with the Reading Royals and the AHL’s Providence Bruins. He spent the entire 2012-13 season, as well as part of 2013-14 with the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat. He wrapped up the 2013-14 season, and his professional hockey playing career, with the Alaska Aces, helping lead them to victory in the 2014 Kelly Cup championship.
When reflecting on his time in the ECHL, the quality of play stuck with McKelvie as well as the strength of the coaching in both organizations he played, and the professionalism with which the organizations were run. “Larry (Courville) and Rob (Murray) were just phenomenal coaches and they taught me a lot about the game.”
McKelvie recalled fondly the charitable efforts made on behalf of military causes by the teams he played professionally for, “There’s more to life than winning and losing – hockey people recognize that.”
As a member of the 2014 Kelly Cup champion Alaska Aces, McKelvie joined an exclusive club of professional hockey players.”There’s only a small percentage that will win a championship as a pro, so it’s really special. To have an opportunity to be a part of that team is a really big deal, and I think it only helps with the coaching career.”
After the Kelly Cup championship with Alaska, McKelvie was presented with the opportunity to return to West Point as an Assistant Coach for the men’s hockey team ahead of the 2014-15 season, which he took. His twin brother Chris, who played in both the ECHL and AHL, joined the Army staff in May 2016.
“It’s a special place, I love being a part of this program. There are a lot of special young men that play here – they want to be leaders, they want to be great hockey players. It’s really fun to work with them every day and hopefully both Chris and I can influence the program in a positive way.”
McKelvie’s excitement about the opportunity to continue to serve in a leadership position for the West Point Hockey Program is hard to ignore.
“West Point is a place that sets you up for life, not just for hockey. Obviously being an officer in the Army is an unbelievable career and unbelievable experience. You realize that the hockey program is part of West Point, West Point’s not a part of the hockey program. The ultimate mission here is to create leaders.”
If Zach McKelvie is any indication, mission accomplished.