A lot can happen in a year – just ask Shane Starrett.
A year ago, the Wichita Thunder goaltender was in his second season between the pipes for the United States Air Force Academy Falcons, balancing the demands of being a college athlete with the rigors of preparing for life as an officer in the Air Force. Not to mention, he was doing so at one of the top academic institutions in the nation. The Bellingham, MA native doesn’t have any family ties to the military, but said that a former coach brought the Academy onto his radar.
“It was late in my junior hockey career and my coach told me ‘Hey – the Air Force Academy is interested in you. Do you think you would be interested in it as well?’ I started looking into it, all they had to offer, and how they are one of the top academic schools in the nation. When you graduate from there, you’re going to be serving in the military, which is a huge honor. So looking at it from that aspect, aside from the fact that they have a Division I hockey program with many Atlantic Hockey championships, it all kind of helped me decide to go there.”
While Starrett had a rough idea of what would be in store in terms of military training, nothing could truly prepare him for what he was about to go through upon arrival at the USAFA.
“When you first get there, it’s kind of a culture shock. You spend your first 40 days before you even start your classes in basic training. On Day 1, you show up in a t-shirt & shorts and by the end of the day, you’re marching in a formation wearing a uniform. By the end of the 40 days you start your classes and get going with the school year, you start getting in a routine and you know how the days are going to go. You start planning better because you have a lot less time on your hands than you probably would at any other college. So it helps you become a better planner and work more efficiently with the limited time you’re offered.”
Limited time is what Starrett would have not only in his day by day schedule as a cadet, but in his overall career at the Academy. Despite the limited time, Starrett had no trouble leaving his mark on the Falcons record books. In his two seasons with the team, he played 70 games and had a career save percentage of .924 with a career goals-against average of 1.96. Both his goals-against average and save percentage are school records among goalies that played more than 35 games. In 2017 he was a semifinalist for the Mike Richter Award, given to the nation’s top goaltender. He was named the team's MVP both seasons as he helped lead the Falcons to back-to-back trips to the Atlantic Hockey Final Four, including the 2017 conference championship, with which the team earned a berth in the NCAA Championships. He helped the team defeat eigth-ranked Western Michigan in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, the team’s second NCAA win in school history. Top seeded Harvard ended the Falcons’ season in the second round with a 3-2 defeat. After the loss to Harvard, a new opportunity came calling. Starrett was approaching a pivotal time of his college and military career, and several teams took note.
“I just wanted to go out and win some games in a national tournament,” Starrett reflected on making it to the 2017 NCAA Tournament. “The Air Force has only won, I think, one or two games prior in the NCAA Tournament, and never made it to the Frozen Four. So we were kind of thinking ‘this is our year.’ Then when we lost, my now agent told me that there were some (NHL) teams that were interested.”
Upon arrival at the Air Force Academy, incoming cadets take an oath to fulfill certain military service obligations. Included in this commitment is the assertion that a cadet will accept an appointment and serve as a commissioned officer in the Air Force for at least eight years after graduation from the Academy, five of which must be active duty. However, fourth- and third-class cadets (freshmen and sophomores) who are separated by the Academy, or whose resignations are accepted, will ordinarily be completely relieved from all military duty active or reserve. Simply put, if Starrett chose to leave, or resign from, the Academy after the first two years to pursue a career in professional hockey, he likely would not be issued any military commitment to first serve.
“Once you hit your junior year at the Academy, you’re committed to five years of service to the military. So it’s kind of, do you follow your dream of being a hockey player, or do you want to go on and be an officer in the United States Air Force? So right after the tournament, my agent told me there were some teams interested in me – so I had to make the decision – do I go the hockey route or the military route? I figured the hockey route was present right now and who knows, in a year or two from now, if the hockey route doesn’t work out, I could always go back to the military route. But, the hockey route was a dream of mine that I’ve had since I was a kid, and it’s one that everyone who plays the sport hopes to reach.”
Less than two years after putting pen to paper for the Air Force Academy, Starrett once again signed on the dotted line. This time, to an entry level contract with the Edmonton Oilers, in April of 2017, becoming the first Air Force cadet to sign an NHL contract while still at the Academy. Ahead of the start of the 2017-18 season, the Oilers assigned him to the Thunder, the club’s ECHL affiliate. After shaking off his initial nerves, the rookie has settled in and flourished in the professional game.
“I really just wanted to get that first one under my belt. My first game this year was probably my most nervous one. And since then I’ve kind of settled in. I think it’s all I’ve known, really, is playing this sport my entire life. So after I got that first one out of the way, it all just fell into place from there.”
Fell into place would, in most opinions, be an understatement on how Starrett has performed this season. The rookie has helped backstop the Thunder to a 31-23-6 record – good for the team’s current third place standing in the Mountain Division. If the Thunder are able to hold on to that third place spot, they’ll advance to the Kelly Cup Playoffs, where they will face off against the Division’s second place team, a spot currently occupied by the Idaho Steelheads.
In addition to playing in three games for the Bakersfield Condors, the Thunder’s AHL affiliate, Starrett has seen action in 33 games for the Thunder – earning a .900 save percentage and a 2.98 goals against average. He earned CCM/ECHL Rookie of the Month honors for November. In January, he was announced as the Thunder’s representative for the 2018 CCM/ECHL All-Star Classic – the sole goaltender for the Mountain Division. At the All-Star Classic, he helped propel his team to victory as they defeated the Central Division in their semifinal game, and then defeated the South Division in a shootout for the All-Star victory. Additionally, with nine saves on ten shots, Starrett won the Rapid Fire Shootout Challenge as part of the BlueIndy/ECHL All-Star Skills Challenge.
“It was a real cool experience, real fun. You get there and you meet all the guys from the other teams. And then to go out and play, and it’s on NHL Network. I know my parents were watching at home, my brothers were all watching on the east coast – they all texted me after the game. It was a cool experience in that aspect, that all these people got to finally watch me play professionally on the NHL Network. It was a huge honor, first, to be selected for it. Then once you get there, you’re doing all the festivities and all the fans are there. I thought it was just overall a cool experience to be a part of.”
Putting his accolades in perspective, it’s natural to wonder where Shane Starrett’s career will take him – and if he will reach his ultimate goal of playing in the NHL. If he does, he would be the first former Air Force player to play at the sport’s highest level. But if you ask him, Starrett prefers not to get too far ahead of himself.
“Just take it game by game is how I always go about it. I don’t like looking too far ahead in the future, I’m just taking it game by game right now.”
Starrett may not be willing to look too far ahead publicly but as his first season of professional hockey demonstrates, a lot can happen in a year.