Rarefied Air

You wake up at 5:30 a.m. — your eyes still adjusting to the dark — and get ready to start your day. The next couple of hours will consist of drills and practice, then you have to rush to be ready for school at eight.

Before you know it, it’s the end of the day. If you’re going to get any kind of rest, you have to go to bed — at 10 p.m. Tomorrow, you’ll do it all over again.

Is this a day in the life of a Canadian kid, getting up before dawn to get some precious ice time before school starts? A teenage goaltender playing in a touring junior team somewhere in Minnesota?

Not quite. The early-morning drills have nothing to do with diagramming power plays or morning skates. It’s all part of an Air Force cadet’s daily military education, preparing him for the task of leadership in the armed forces. Hockey practice comes in the afternoon, after an academic workout surrounded by some of the best minds in the nation.

Frank Serratore, in his eighth season at the helm of the Falcon hockey team, knows the demands placed on his players are different from those of other college athletes. That’s not to say that non-military universities don’t have their own challenges in terms of juggling an education with sports.

It’s just that discipline takes on a whole new meaning when you’re defending not just your zone, but your country.

“The Academy is way different than a traditional school,” said Serratore, who previously coached the Denver Pioneers in the WCHA, among others. “There’s a lot more structure, and we’re limited in the time we have with our players. We have to manage our time wisely.”

For many coaches, this kind of scheduling would prove to be a headache. Fortunately, that same discipline enables players to manage their responsibilities on their own.

“The players become masters of their own time here,” Serratore said.

However, the time and energy demands can take much from the Air Force team, and Serratore and his staff do what they can to give the players time off to rest their fatigued bodies and minds. Nevertheless, Serratore has developed his team from battling Division III dwellers to competing against Division I teams.

“Our hockey program is doing very well,” said Michael Saks, the Academy’s senior associate athletic director. “Frank is the reason for that.”

What the Falcons’ hockey team lacks in notoriety, it makes up for with a thirst for improvement year after year. And Serratore’s knack for helping teams improve is no fluke. As coach and general manager of the USHL’s Omaha Lancers in 1990, Serratore led the team to a championship just one year after they finished in last place.

At Denver (1990-1994), Serratore helped rebuild the floundering team, and led them one step closer to respectability. The former college goaltender and graduate of Air Force’s CHA rival Bemidji State sees his tenure at the Academy as an extension of the building process he undertook in Denver.

“I think we’ve come a long way. We don’t play Division III teams any more … we’ve taken the team to the [Division I] level,” said Serratore.

During his time at Air Force, Serratore’s teams have set a school record for wins in its short Division I history at 14, an achievement that the coach holds in high regard. “We’re in the second year of a rebuilding phase … after getting 14 wins against D-I teams [in previous seasons].”

This season is just another step in the growth process for the Falcons. This year’s team is young and relatively inexperienced. But that’s nothing compared to the shock that last year’s 10-win team felt as the roster underwent an overhaul.

Serratore is willing to be patient.

“We’re having a hard time getting goals this year,” Serratore (77-100-15 at Air Force) said. “We’ve got 13 or 14 freshmen or sophomores in the lineup. Hopefully down the road we’ll mature a bit … but we need to get to a point where we have more juniors and seniors playing and less freshmen and sophomores. That’s going to take some time.”

There is hope already present on the youthful Academy roster.

“We’ve got [freshman] Josh Print on our top two lines, and [freshman] Matt Charbonneau at defense, who’s played well,” said Serratore, who also mentioned freshman goalie and Idaho native Ian Harper as another with the opportunity to develop into a leader.

Every season in the CHA, Air Force is scheduled against powerhouse Bemidji State. And without fail, the subject comes up: the matchup between Frank Serratore and his brother Tom, head coach at Bemidji.

No sooner is it said than Frank Serratore puts the sibling-rivalry theory to rest.

“I don’t think much about it. [Tom and I] don’t take it personally,” Frank Serratore — the older of the two — said. “To be honest, it’s not us facing off against each other. I do look forward to seeing him every year, and sometimes things happen during the game when you get ticked off, but that happens with every game. I certainly don’t circle the game on the schedule.”

Tom Serratore agrees, noting that seeing his brother is the best part about meeting up with Air Force.

“It is fun playing against Air Force, and I like coaching against Air Force,” he said. “But really, it’s the mellowest time for me in terms of preparation. It allows us a chance to see each other and get up to speed with each others’ lives.”

And off the ice? Any brotherly battles at family gatherings?

“Well, maybe if we’re out playing one-on-one or something…” said big brother Frank.

More than an anonymous coach at a school where Fisher DeBerry’s football Falcons get most of the press, Serratore believes that the development of hockey in the community — especially in Colorado Springs — helps support the team and the sport at all levels.

“I think the sport of hockey is huge here, and Frank is very well-attuned to the sport,” said Saks.

“Not many coaches can do what Frank’s done with the program,” Tom Serratore said. “You look at all the things he’s accomplished with Air Force, his record against Division I, his road record. … [Frank’s teams] play hard, they play smart and that’s all you can ask from your players.”

Serratore can also be seen in the offseason, providing analysis on television after Colorado Avalanche playoff games and during intermissions. Whether or not he gets behind the sports desk when his coaching days are done remains to be seen, but for right now, Serratore is looking forward to getting his Air Force team to greater heights.

“There’s a lot to be positive about here,” said Serratore. “I look forward to where this program is going at Air Force.”