Army rallies around memory of fallen Major Tom Kennedy
by Alan Lessels/Correspondent
The Army hockey team suffered the kind of major loss in early August that quickly puts a rough season, sports and everything else in perspective.
Major Tom Kennedy, a former defenseman with the program and the officer representative for the team the past four years, was killed in action in Afghanistan. He was 35.
“We dedicated this season to him,” said senior defenseman and assistant captain Andy Starczewski. “He meant everything to every one of us here, especially us as a senior class. We all really kind of grew up with him.”
Kennedy (New York, N.Y.) left behind a wife and young twins. He was recruited to the Black Knight hockey family out of the Salisbury School in Connecticut by Brian Riley, who is now the head coach and back then was an assistant. He played four years, graduating in 2000.
“Some coaches talk about losing hockey games,” Riley said. “I’m not worried about losing games; I’m worried about losing players. It’s happened twice, first with Derek Hines and now with Tom Kennedy. Both of these guys were just outstanding young men. They were everything you want your players to be when they are part of your program and, most importantly, everything you hope they will be when they leave your program.”
First Lieutenant Hines was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2005, two years after finishing his Army hockey career. He was 25.
Starczewski and Riley raved about the way Kennedy — everyone called him “TK” — went about his role as officer representative.
“The position means he’s kind of like a father figure to us,” Starczewski said. “That’s why he’s there, to really take care of us whether you need somewhere to eat — a nice, warm meal — or whether you get in trouble with something in the school, or there to help us deal with the rigorous Academy schedule. As far as TK goes, there’s no other way to put it: He was simply the best. He cared for each and every one of us like we were one of his kids.
“The best thing about Major Kennedy was he did everything behind the scenes. He didn’t care about the glory or the fame. It made him happy to make us happy.”
Kennedy left West Point after last season and was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo., before being deployed to Afghanistan.
“Obviously, the news was just devastating,” Riley said. “I didn’t even really say goodbye to him. It was to be a short deployment and we were going to see him in January when we play at Air Force.”
The Black Knights are keeping the memory of “TK” and his spirit as close as they can as they try to rebound from a tough season on the ice. A “TK Night” is planned for Dec. 1 when AIC comes to West Point to play. “We’re going to have all his family here,” Riley said. “I think it will be a real special night.”
The Black Knights are wearing “TK” decals on their helmets and hero bracelets with his name, and are honoring his memory in numerous other ways.
“Before lifts, on a daily basis, we have a chant to honor him: ‘TK on three,’” Starczewski said. “I have a prayer card from his service hanging in my locker and some players have ‘TK’ stickers on their lockers to remind us why we’re here every day.”
Starczewski, out of Whitesboro, N.Y., and senior captain Cheyne Rocha, who’s from Rye, N.H., and missed most of last season, are intent on helping their young team turn things around from a season that got away from them last year. They were a team full of veterans, but things never really clicked.
“Last year was certainly not the year we were looking for,” Riley said. “I take the blame for the season. I don’t think I did a very good job setting us up for success. I think we needed more structure, more systems. I think you get comfortable. It’s Hockey Coaching 101. You can never get too comfortable.”
The Black Knights went 0-4-2 through their first six games and struggled for wins throughout the season. They finished 4-23-7, the team’s worst record in 60 years, and tied for last place in the standings with Sacred Heart.
“We knew we were a much better hockey team than our record showed and we knew going into the playoffs that we were capable of going deep into them,” Starczewski said. “But that didn’t happen, either.”
Now the Black Knights have regrouped, Riley has tweaked the way they do things in their systems and structure, and they are in a youth movement. Thirteen freshmen had played in at least one game through the first couple of weekends and 10 of them — including Joe Kozlak, Luke Jenkins and Willie Faust — had played in at least three of the first four games.
Starczewski loves it. “The biggest thing we have with all these freshmen is the excitement they bring to the rink day in and day out,” he said. “It’s the energy they have and that translates to our playing style. We’re playing a very blue-collar, hard-nosed game.”
It’s not unlike the in-your-face, disciplined style the Black Knights have always played, but it’s been re-energized and focused.
“It’s exciting,” Riley said. “It was the right time to shake things up.”
Goal scoring was an issue for Army last season. Starczewski was the only player to hit double figures in goals with 13, and the team averaged 1.91 goals a game. Only once did the Black Knights score as many as four goals in a game.
In their first two league games this year, Army topped that output in a 5-2 win and 4-4 tie with Sacred Heart. The team entered November with a record of 2-3-1. “Now we’ve got to sustain it,” Starczewski said.
Starczewski and Rocha will be out to lead that effort. Rocha, a premier shot blocker, was done last season after he broke his leg against Brown in the 10th game of the year. “He’s just a great, great representative of the program, not only on, but off the ice,” Riley said. “We’re very, very lucky to have him and we’re excited to have him back on the ice.”
Riley loved the effort and attitude last year’s team brought to the rink, despite the struggles to get results.
He’s eager to see what this group does. “I’m excited to see these guys grow not only this year, but through their four years,” he said. “And I’m real excited to see this team go from October to March. I really believe they can be a lot better team than what people expect from us.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of New York Hockey Journal.