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Air Force graduate Christopoulos a unique rookie

Billy Christopoulos is not your typical ECHL rookie. While the South Carolina Stingrays goaltender is in his first season of professional hockey, his similarities to other first-year players in the League begin and end there.

The 25-year-old completed his collegiate career at the United States Air Force Academy last season, and over the summer, was accepted into the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) as he looks to earn a spot on the United States Olympic Team for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

“From Air Force, there was one player that graduated in 2015 that had entered the program,” Christopoulos said. “After my junior year, some of my teammates brought it up to me and said that I should look into it. I talked to my coaches about it and then from there, one of my coaches, Joe Doyle, put in a ton of ground work and started talking to the guys over at USA Hockey. He was a huge help, he was pushing the paperwork the whole way. It got kind of hairy towards the end, it wasn’t until after I graduated this past summer that I got accepted into the program so it was a bit of a last minute thing but it ended up working out.”

According to the Academy’s website, the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, managed by the Air Force Services Center, was established in 1995 to continue the legacy of Tuskegee Airman Malvin G. Whitfield. Whitfield, a Korean War tail gunner, became the first active-duty American serviceman to win Olympic gold in 1952 in Helsinki. Whitfield had previously won two golds and a bronze in track during the 1948 Olympics in London.

In addition to the usual responsibilities of a professional hockey player, Christopoulos will have added tasks related to the WCAP throughout the season.

“Each quarter I’ll have a couple days off to go onto base and kind of do some things, do some tests here and there and make some appearances in the community,” he said. “The main goal is to help promote the Air Force and the World Class Athlete Program. Other than that, it’s just training to potentially prepare for one of the world tournaments and do that by playing here in South Carolina.”

Christopoulos had an interesting journey during his career prior to enrolling at Air Force. He was born in Chicago, and moved to North Carolina in 1999, just after the Carolina Hurricanes relocated to the state from Hartford. That ended up being fortuitous timing for him, and his budding hockey career.

“Before I had got there they really had no youth hockey program and then all of a sudden, kind of some good timing on my part, once the Hurricanes came, they brought with them the Junior Hurricanes program and then as the years went on, the guys that retired from Carolina stayed there so we had ex-NHLers trying to build up the program so that kind of helped,” he said.

When he got to his teenage years, Christopoulos realized that hockey may be a potential career for him, so he moved back to Chicago, where he finished his AAA career before starting his junior career with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League.

It was during his time with Des Moines that he landed on the radar of the coaches at Air Force.

“I really had no idea what the Academy was and what it was all about, Christopoulos said. “When I was in Des Moines they started recruiting me and brought me in on a visit. It’s hard not to like the place when you visit. If you can see yourself doing the military aspect of it, it’s a pretty easy choice because it’s a pretty cool spot to be at.”

Christopoulos went on to appear in 93 career games over four seasons with the Falcons, posting a record of 42-35-11 along with eight shutouts, and being named first-team all-Atlantic Hockey during his senior season. He completed his career tied for second all-time at the school with a .915 save percentage and third with a 2.25 goals-against average.

“The transition at first is pretty tough, it’s pretty much right in your face from the beginning,” he said of beginning his career at Air Force. “You’re regimented pretty hard, almost right down to the minute, and they’ve got you running all kinds of places and doing all kinds of things. But, once you get in that routine and once you get used to it, it definitely helps you stay focused and stay on track so you’re not wasting your days away.”

While at Air Force, he was teammates with fellow goaltender Shane Starrett, who has enjoyed a successful start to his pro career. Starrett participated in the 2018 ECHL All-Star Classic in Indianapolis while playing with the Wichita Thunder, and last season, earned a spot on the American Hockey League All-Rookie Team with the Bakersfield Condors. Christopoulos said having close ties with someone who has experienced at the pro level has been beneficial to him.

“Shane and I came to Air Force in the same class, and I’ve reached out to him a time or two and been following up with him, congratulating him. He had a heck of a year last year so it’s pretty exciting to see what he can do next. Having someone like him that I can bounce questions off of and ask him kind of what it’s like is pretty cool.”

As Christopoulos gets set to embark on his professional career, he’s back in an area he is familiar with, as the Stingrays play only a couple hours away from where he grew up in North Carolina.

“It’s been a long time since I played hockey anywhere remotely close to North Carolina,” he said. “Right now, I’m about a four-hour drive from my house which is pretty crazy, but it’s a cool experience and I’m excited to be here and to be close to home.”

And if everything works out according to plan, hockey fans will be hearing plenty of Billy Christopoulos’ name in the coming years.