Hockey and the military have a long history together, from the origins of the Memorial Cup as a tribute to the soldiers in the First World War to the NHLers and other pros who served in the Second World War and Vietnam.
But the days of players actually serving overseas are long gone. That is, of course, unless you played college hockey at a service academy.
Captain Mike Polidor spent four years as a goaltender for Air Force, three as the starter. When his time was up in 2004, his career was just beginning. Not as a netminder, but as a fighter pilot. Polidor was recently given the Colonel James Jabara Award for Airmanship, an exclusive prize that has also gone to Vietnam heroes, astronauts and Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot in the famous Hudson River landing in 2009.
Polidor was flying an F-15E Strike Eagle jet fighter in Afghanistan in 2009. During a nearly eight-hour mission, he helped save 72 coalition soldiers who had been surrounded on all sides by 250 Taliban fighters.
“From the second we took off, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and it was intense from the get-go,” Polidor said. “It went by so fast.”
During the mission, the former netminder dropped four bombs and strafed the enemy with gunfire. He refuelled three times in mid-air and performed a battle-damage check on his wingman’s jet. All of this in an area that hampered radio communications and harboured thunderstorms on the horizon. The irony of it all is that Polidor didn’t come to the Academy with a future in piloting on his mind.
“My main motivation was hockey,” he said. “Only in my senior year did I think about flying.”
Players who attend Air Force (or Army) have a big decision to make halfway through their tenure. The first day of class in their junior year triggers a five-year military commitment, so they must be sure of what they’re getting into. According to Polidor, the decision usually comes earlier, however.
“If guys make it through their first year, 95 percent of them stay,” he said. “Freshman year is hard, but after that it gets better.”
That’s because cadets go through a six-week boot camp at the beginning and the pressure’s still on after that. And if you’re a hockey player, that means practices and games on top of the regular physical workouts a cadet is put through.
On the ice, the Air Force Falcons naturally have a bit of a recruiting disadvantage because of the rigors of the school, but the team’s no pushover. Capt. Polidor’s favorite memory comes from his final season.
“My senior year we went up to Anchorage, Alaska, for an early-season tournament,” he said. “Miami was ranked and the year before they had whupped us pretty good. We shut them out 2-0.”
Now Polidor’s biggest saves will be remembered as the ones he made in Afghanistan. He’s done two four-month runs over there, executing more than 50 missions. But the rescue mission in Kamdesh Valley was by far his longest and earned him a place in Air Force history. He’s back in the U.S. right now but isn’t resting on his accomplishments – now he’s training to become a B2 bomber pilot.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.