By CLAUDE SCILLEY
It’s always the same around Royal Military College, every year when the hockey schedule comes out. Immediately people begin to scan it for the date of the annual game with the U.S. Military Academy.
“It’s definitely one of the ones the guys circle,” hockey coach Richard Lim said. “Everyone involved at the college circles it.”
It’s unlikely, however, anybody did so any quicker this year than Lim himself. “It was,” he said, “right away.”
There was good reason for that. Though he played on the hockey team at RMC for five years, Lim never got to play in a game against West Point. It just so happened that Lim’s five years, 2006-11, were the five years the series was in hiatus.
“I would love to play in the game but I don’t have any eligibility left,” Lim quipped the other day, “so this is the closest I can get to it.
“I’m really excited to be a part of it and a share an experience with the guys who deserve a chance to show how much better we are than last year.”
The 80th game in what was once the oldest continuous international rivalry in sport will be played Saturday at the Rogers K-Rock Centre. Game time is 7:30 p.m. The Paladins will be trying to avenge an 8-0 whipping administered by Army a year ago at West Point, N.Y.
The series, which began in 1923, was interrupted for several years during and immediately after the Second World War. It continued in 1949 and had been played annually through 2006, when issues arose around philosophical issues—Army disputing the eligibility of reservists on the RMC team, and RMC’s view that the timing of the game in late January or early February had suddenly become an impediment to reaching the playoffs—led to it being abandoned.
In his final year, Lim was involved in trying to revive the game.
“We went down for a cultural exchange, I think is what we called it,” Lim recalled. “We practised at West Point and hung out with their players, went to classes with their players, and sort of kicked off some relationships to get the game back to where it is now.”
Where the game is now doesn’t flatter the Paladins. RMC hasn’t won one of these games since 2002, and have only a tie to show for the last eight contests. The Paladins have scored just four goals in the four games since the series revival, and two of the defeats have been blowouts of 9-1 and the aforementioned 8-0 debacle of a year ago.
Lim expects to put up a better scrap on Saturday night.
“We’re all pulling on the rope in the same direction,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure to coach because we have 21 guys that have bought in and are willing to work until the ends of the earth for each other. It’s a joy (to see) how competitive they’ve become in a short time.”
The last-place team in the East division of Ontario University Athletics has won just three of 22 games to date, but two of their last three, with the third of those games a two-goal loss to No. 2-ranked McGill. It’s a modest improvement for a team that didn’t win a game last season, but it’s one from which Lim draws encouragement.
“I wanted to change the culture of things in the room, as well as the way we play on the ice,” he said. “It was going to be a process and we were going to take our lumps early. There’s no way you can avoid that after a season where you don’t get a win.
“We took some lumps with changing our game and not being completely comfortable in the type of style that we were learning. That happened a few times. Since then we’ve been in seven or eight hockey games where we’ve been tied or down one in the last three minutes. Those are games where a bounce here or a save there and all of a sudden we’re looking like a team that can win.
“Every team can say that, but I think it’s given our guys confidence that they can play with any team in the league.”
If university hockey is generally under-appreciated by the mainstream hockey intelligentsia, RMC hockey typically is downright ignored, except for once every other year, when Army comes to town. It often doesn’t sit well with those on the team to have their entire season put under the microscope for one game. At best, there’s a grudging acceptance that a little attention is better than none.
Lim, however, doesn’t mind. He sees Saturday’s game with West Point as an opportunity.
“The one good thing is we get to showcase with people in town how high a level our hockey is,” he said. “There have been a couple of stories about how poorly we’re doing this year, making reference to not being a competitive team, and people who have written things like that haven’t come out and watched CIS hockey. It’s very strong and it keeps getting better.
“Major junior players play in the CIS, but there are a lot of teams who sit major junior guys because they’re not good enough. For people to say because we’re 3-16-3 we’re not a very good hockey team, I challenge them to come out and watch some games.
“Judging a book by its cover like that is disappointing.”