Before Tom Kennedy had much of a chance to use his hockey skills to make an impression on the recruiter, he gave that observer all he needed to know with a gesture of compassion and maturity.
Then an Army assistant coach, Brian Riley was on a trip to see Kennedy play for the Salisbury School of Connecticut in the mid-1990s when the game was halted for about an hour because of a major injury.
The injured Salisbury player was on the ice, being tended to by the team coach and athletic trainer.
And there was Kennedy, unwilling to leave his teammate’s side.
“I remember thinking, wow, I don’t know what kind of player this guy is because I haven’t had a chance to see him play,” said Riley, now Army’s head coach, “but there’s something special about him.”
That feeling carried through to Kennedy’s playing career as a Black Knights defenseman through his graduation in 2000 and in the last four years as the hockey program’s officer representative.
It made the dreadful message Riley received late Wednesday so much more hard to digest.
Kennedy was killed in action in Afghanistan on Wednesday, the victim of what NBC News reported was a suicide bomb attack on Army leaders on their way to a meeting with Afghani officials.
An Army major, Kennedy, 35, was married with two young twins.
He had been deployed in Afghanistan for only about two weeks, Riley said, after leaving West Point to be stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado.
Kennedy was the hockey program’s officer representative, serving as the liaison to the academy Superintendent. He stood behind the bench with Riley during games, traveled with the team and acted as a mentor to the players, creating close bonds.
“He was always there for them — for anybody in the West Point community. That’s why it’s hit the West Point community so hard,” Riley said. “He was so well liked and he touched so many different people at West Point; not just the hockey family but the whole West Point community.”
It’s not hard to see that Kennedy left quite an impression on Riley, especially in recent years. Coaches love to see their former players do big things in life, and Kennedy was obliging.
He was the Commandant’s executive officer. He was a tactical officer. He was the president of the Army Hockey Association.
People kept piling things on Kennedy’s plate; it never seemed to faze him.
One of the final conversations between Riley and Kennedy took place after this year’s West Point graduation.
As he walked off the graduation field, looking at the houses where high-ranking academy officials live, Riley turned to Kennedy.
“I said, you know what, TK? The next time you come back to West Point, you could be in one of those houses, either the Superintendent or the Commandant,” Riley said. “He kind of chuckled, but I really think he could have been. He was doing great things in the Army. He was so well respected by everybody. I really think the sky was the limit for him.”
Services for Kennedy are tentatively scheduled for West Point next week, Riley said. A wake is planned for Thursday with the funeral Friday.
Riley has experience dealing with the loss of a former player. 1st Lt. Derek Hines was killed in action in 2005, just two years after completing his four-year Army playing career.
Nothing comes easy in the days following such a tragedy, but perspective can be an exception.
“All of us — coaches, players, fans — we sometimes get caught up in our own little world and when something like this happens hopefully it gives everyone an opportunity to step back and realize that what we have is great, but there are certainly more important things,” Riley said.
“If people would just every day stop and think about the men and women who serve our country and are willing to put our lives on the line so we can enjoy the great game of hockey that we all love …”
Riley’s voice trailed off. “It’s just really, really hard.”