BY MIKE FIELDS
When promoters of the Ice Vegas Invitational sent out word that they were looking for teams to take part in their second annual college hockey tournament, Air Force Coach Frank Serratore responded faster than a slap shot.
“Going to Las Vegas for a tournament is a unique, exciting experience. And you’re playing in an NHL arena,” he said. “So as soon as I heard about it, I contacted them and we were able to secure a spot.”
Air Force will be joined by Connecticut, Saint Lawrence and Western Michigan in the Jan. 4-5 event that is being promoted by bd Global in partnership with T-Mobile Arena, home of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.
Air Force senior forward Kyle Haak won’t mind getting out of Colorado Springs and spending a few days in Las Vegas. “A little warm weather in January never hurt anybody,” he said with a laugh.
Serratore is always looking for travel opportunities for his Falcons.
“We like to fly the flag,” he said. “We’re America’s team, so we like to get out and around. The Dallas Cowboys aren’t America’s team. We are.”
Haak used to think it was a stretch for his coach to say they were America’s team.
“But I think it gets more and more true,” he said. “We’ve gotten some standing ovations in arenas that are typically hostile environments for opposing teams. So that’s interesting.
“At the end of the day, though, we’re here trying to get an education, play some great hockey, and serve our country, especially once we graduate. We’ll definitely be fighting for America in a couple years.”
The Falcons figure to draw their share of fans to T-Mobile Arena, considering Nellis Air Force Base is only few miles outside Las Vegas. About 9,700 military personnel and 3,500 civilians work at Nellis.
“It’d be great if they’ll be able to come out and support us,” Haak said.
Air Force came close to making the NCAA Frozen Four the last two years. It lost to eventual national champion Minnesota Duluth 2-1 in the West Regional finals in 2018, and fell to Harvard 3-2 in the East Regional finals in 2017.
The Falcons have been slowed by a rash of injuries this season, but Serratore hopes the Christmas break will allow their roster to get healthy. “Meanwhile,” he said, “we’ve been plunking away and finding a way to get some wins.”
Haak, who is the Air Force Cadet of the Year and ranks No. 1 in his class academically, thinks Ice Vegas will be a perfect way for the Falcons to prep for the post-season.
“We’re playing two different teams Friday and Saturday in an NHL arena, kind of a neutral site just like the playoffs, so it’ll be a great opportunity to forecast the environment that we’ll hopefully be in at the end of the season,” he said.
Saint Lawrence Coach Mark Morris said the Saints’ interest in Ice Vegas was piqued by a couple of family ties.
Joe Sullivan, who was their team captain last year and is now playing professionally for the ECHL Manchester (NH) Monarchs, is from Las Vegas.
“When we heard (Ice Vegas) was a possibility, Joe’s parents and some other parents got to talking about it,” Morris said.
Also, Saint Lawrence sophomore Jake Stevens’ sister is a dancer in a Las Vegas show.
“With those connections, the idea of going gathered momentum in a hurry,” Morris said. “There’s lots of excitement. It will be a new experience for a lot of our fans, and give our alums out west a chance to see our team play.”
Saint Lawrence has a roster stacked with young players.
“We’re in the midst of transition,” Morris said. “We’re primarily a freshman and sophomore team. Unfortunately, we’ve had a rash of injuries to overcome. We had a similar situation last year, but right after Christmas we went into a Vermont showcase tournament and wound up winning it. Hopefully we can do that again.”
Saint Lawrence will face Air Force in the first round of Ice Vegas, and UConn will take on Western Michigan. This season, Western Michigan has beaten and tied No. 3 Minnesota Duluth, and swept No. 11 North Dakota.