Even after he signed a one-year contract with the Boston Bruins, Zach McKelvie knew he wasn't guaranteed an opportunity to pursue a pro hockey career.
A few weeks ago, the West Point graduate found out that, in fact, the Army had decided to adhere to the Department of Defense rules and not allow the speedy defenseman a chance to play this season.
"Overall, in short, the decision by the Army and by West Point was that it's just not in the best interest for me to pursue hockey right now," McKelvie told ESPNBoston.com via phone from West Point, where he is serving as the athletic intern for the hockey team. "The old rule when I committed to stay in the Army, the old rule was that if you had a contract you could play immediately upon graduation for a two-year period and they would evaluate you during that period and they would determine at the end of that period whether you could keep playing or you could come back here to the Army. But now the new Department of Defense Policy, which came out maybe a year and a half ago, after I committed, is that you have to serve two years first and then if you have a contract you can play after."
McKelvie, who won the 2009 fastest skater competition at the Frozen Four, expects to report to Fort Benning, Ga., for special training in late March or early April. After that he'll be assigned to a unit, probably also in Georgia. That unit's deployment schedule will determine where he goes after that.
Just a few months ago, he thought he'd be reporting to Providence of the American Hockey League. Obviously, McKelvie, 24, has mixed emotions about his plight.
"It's frustrating on one side. At the same time, I can understand it," he said. "I have no problem serving in the military. This is what we train to do here. We train to be a part of this Army and help this country out. But at the same time ... I feel like they never should have, I guess, led me on. And at the same time, it's a pretty hard time to let someone play professionally. I totally understand that because of the situation that's going on."
McKelvie said that it would be easier to accept the Army's decision were it not for the 60 or 70 athletes that are allowed to train all year with the World Class Athlete Program. Only athletes in individual Olympic sports can qualify for that program.
"That's the frustrating part," he explained. "If they said no to all those athletes, there's no way I could make an argument that 'hey, I should be able to play too.' That's how the Army is."
But instead athletes in sports such as tae kwon do and boxing get to push on, while hockey and basketball players have to adhere to the DOD policy. While his pro career is now a long shot to become a reality, McKelvie still has some memories that any player would dream of. He wasn't able to skate during development camp in July because he was still recovering from shoulder surgery. But in September, he was able to get in some practices during training camp.
"At training camp, that was just a whole other step up," he recalled. "Playing with and getting to see the best players in the world training and how they conduct themselves on an everyday basis, it was just amazing. When I was there, I felt like I was one step closer to my dream of playing in the NHL one day. So I'm grateful for the experience, I'm grateful the Bruins gave me that opportunity. I'm grateful that West Point gave me the opportunity to attend training camp."
McKelvie said he's looking forward to his upcoming training and then whatever new experiences the Army will present him in the future. But at the same time, it's difficult to be around hockey because it reminds him of what might have been.
"It's tough to come to the rink every day and just want to be out on the ice with the guys. I want to practice and want to be out there competing. It's a tough thing because I possibly had an opportunity to continue my career. But it's not my choice whether or not I can do that. So it's very frustrating. I guess I'll never know if I could've achieved that dream."
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.