This article appears in the April 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
West Point hockey coach Brian Riley sends out dozens of recruiting letters, and usually ends up changing about eight lives. In fall 1998, Derek Hines got his letter. When he read it, he was probably sitting at the kitchen table in his family's cozy home near the cemetery in Newburyport, Mass., a little town by the sea. Out back on the lawn was the regulation hockey goal that Hines had dinged with a million shots off the post.
Hines had never really considered the military as a career, and it certainly hadn't occurred to him that playing a lot of hockey might lead him into war.
He was a typical kid in sneakers, with no particular obsessions about black patent-leather shoes, or shining them constantly. He wasn't from a military family, either. His father, Steven, was a state trooper, and his mother, Sue, had a window-dressing business that she ran out of their home. Younger brothers Michael and Trevor and sister Ashley didn't seem headed that way either.
The United States Military Academy comes out of nowhere for a lot of hockey recruits. Seth Beamer, Class of '06, a teammate who became Hines' good friend, got his letter three years later, in 2001. "War?" the senior forward says. "I didn't really think about it, except maybe that I was against it." But the Academy, and its hockey program, has a way of creating believers.
It's a true Division I program with a 100-plus-year history. The first hockey-playing cadets at West Point skated on a flooded field in front of the barracks in 1904. Today they skate at the regularly packed Tate Rink, with its 2,648 seats in Army black and gold, and ads on the boards from outfits like Boeing and General Dynamics.
And while they don't skate at the level of Wisconsin and Boston College, the Black Knights aren't far off. It's no surprise, for instance, to find that Bryce Hollweg -- one of this year's alternate captains -- has a brother, Ryan, who plays for the New York Rangers. Or that Brody Howatt, class of '99, is the son of former Islanders wing Garry Howatt. Or that Dan Hinote never made it to graduation. When he arrived at the Point in fall 1995, Hinote hoped the Academy would help him get an FBI job, but his plans changed when he was drafted by the Avs in 1996. He left school after his freshman year and ended up taking a victory lap with the Stanley Cup in 2001.
Hines had interest from a few other D1s, Holy Cross for one. He visited them, then went to West Point for a weekend and came back hooked. "They were so nice there," he told his father. "I felt like I was already on the team." In June 1999, Hines showed up on campus -- along with forwards Joe Dudek and Nic Serre and defenseman Kevin Emore -- with little more than a toothbrush. The Army would take their extra hair and issue them everything else they'd need.
The buzz cut was the first hint that this wouldn't be like playing hockey anywhere else. (You don't see any Canadians on the roster, which in college hockey is like playing without sticks. You don't see mullets, either.) Mullets have no place in the Army game. It's "high and tight" in all aspects of life. "There is an officer rep at every game," says forward Tim Murphy, '02, who played on a line with Hines for three years. "He stands behind the bench in full dress to make sure everything is done the Army way." That includes the Army way to store pads in lockers and to hold a stick during the national anthem (perfectly straight, blade on the ice, tilted to the right).
Other teams made fun of Army players, who were easy targets. Murphy remembers that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy inspired dozens of put-downs, usually delivered during faceoffs. "We'd always hear, 'Hey, that must work out great for you guys.'" But Hines thrived. He was a blond kid with an infectious personality, small for a hockey player at 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds, but outsized in his passion for the game. He found a lot of guys in his mold. Not the biggest, not the most skilled, but bursting with energy. "We aren't a finesse team," Murphy says.
"We don't get the pretty boys with the moves. We get the hard workers, the ones who want to let the other team know we're in it."
On Oct. 15, 1999, Hines scored on his first shot -- in a road game against Bemidji State in Minnesota -- blasting down the right wing and driving to the net. His father was in the stands, beaming. Steven had been unsure if West Point would be right for his son, but he'd fallen in love with the place.
"If your son gives you half the thrills you've given me, you'll be a lucky man," he told Derek after the game.
And the cadets were becoming something besides teammates, too. Notions like service and duty and soldiering became the way they defined themselves.
"While you're there, it becomes so much more than hockey, there's something so real about it," says forward Nathan Mayfield, '02.
Exactly what kind of soldier, though, is up to each cadet. They're committed to the military, but West Pointers have some choice about the careers they want. Most significantly, they can head toward or away from action on the ground. A cadet, for example, could choose -- or "branch" -- finance, which pretty much leads to a desk job. Most of the hockey players, though, branch field artillery, which is what Hines did. That means driving tanks, humping packs and crawling through the mud and sand. Maybe they're braver, or maybe they're worse at math. Either way, they head for the action.
"Did we make him that way? I don't know. You do everything you can to protect your child, but you can't. You know, sometimes I wish he didn't go to West Point. And then I look at the people he was surrounded by, who they were and what they wanted to do, and I realize he was lucky."
And after 9/11, they knew they were going to see some. As it did with everything in the U.S., that day had an effect on the team. The Army squad travels to games in a black-and-gold-trimmed bus. During the Vietnam War, people flipped the bird as the bus drove by. After the World Trade Center towers fell, the bus was like a traveling beacon-of-freedom mobile. It cruised down the highway to horns honking, kids waving and flags popping out of car windows.
Instead of insults during faceoffs, Murphy got postgame thank-yous from opponents. Refs came by after games, wanting to shake hands with the team.
In 2003, his senior year, Hines was made an alternate captain, and despite the anonymity the Army encourages, he had a following. His fans would sit in the rafters with "Go Hines" signs and bottles of Heinz ketchup, which they banged whenever he cannonballed into another player. They'd throw packets of ketchup onto the ice for assists, plastic bottles for goals. If you go to a game today, you can still find kids wearing Hines' No.7. Fans liked him because of the way he played, but also because of the way he'd come out after games and talk for as long as they wanted, as if he really cared about them.
He cared about new recruits, too, like Beamer, whom Hines saw as his grinder heir, taking him to a Tim McGraw concert and inviting him to team viewings of "Dawson's Creek" to get their weekly Katie Holmes fix. When Army swept Air Force, Hines taped a Falcons puck to a broom and burst into Beamer's room, waking him up, sweeping the floor like a custodian on speed.
With wars in two countries, former West Point hockey players have been heading out for combat regularly over the past four years. Murphy went off to Iraq in 2004. Dudek and Serre went in 2005, and Emore is there now. Brody Howatt ended up in the battalion that found Saddam Hussein. As for Hines, he joined the 173rd Airborne Brigade and was posted to Italy in fall 2004 to finish up his training as a fire support officer in Company B of the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment. In spring 2005, he headed to Afghanistan.
His parents, of course, were nervous. Hines had always been a genius when it came to inventing ways to hurt himself. As a kid he found all sorts of paths to stitches: He climbed a pile of dog food at the grocery store and fell off; slipped off the stage at a school play; slid down a splintery piece of plywood; and even gashed his forehead in the waiting room of a pediatrician's office. Steven and Sue could only imagine what might happen in combat.
On March 28, Hines arrived in Qalat, Afghanistan. Headquarters was an abandoned police station in the middle of a dusty plain. Company B, under the command of Capt. Mike Kloepper, was nicknamed Battle Company. Their assignment was to patrol the mountains in the southeastern province of Zabul, sometimes by Humvee, sometimes on foot in smaller squads, getting flown to remote valleys by helicopter. They walked for up to a week, with 50- to 70-pound packs, scouring villages up to 25 miles apart, looking for Taliban fighters.
Hines told his childhood friend Ed Hill, now a defenseman in the Blues organization, that looking down from the copter as they were getting ready to land felt exactly the same as the moments before a big game.
In an April 25 entry in his diary, Hines asked himself about courage, writing: "I hope when the time comes I will respond. My mind and body want the experience under my belt." He found out quickly. The next day, his squad was surprised by small-arms fire on foot patrol in a valley. The men ran for cover behind a rock, leaving their mortar exposed. "Our best weapon was out in the sand, 10 feet away," Kloepper says. "While we were wondering what to do, Hines had already started running out to get the mortar." Over the next five months, the commanding officer was continually impressed by Hines' cool under fire.
Three days after the mortar incident, for example, they were hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while on Humvee patrol. Hines got winged in the jaw by a chunk of metal. Again the squad scrambled for cover, and again Hines rushed into the thick of it, as if it were just another corner to dig the puck out of. Getting atop one of the abandoned Humvees, he begin firing a .50-caliber machine gun, which he'd never handled before.
When not in firefights, Hines' unit was trying to win hearts and minds by building schoolhouses and police stations. But as parliamentary elections approached, engagements were getting fiercer. On Aug. 21, four men in Hines' unit were killed when a bomb exploded near their Humvee. Hines ran to the burning vehicle to pull the soldiers from it, but he was able to save only their bodies.
Thousands of miles away, Riley keeps in close contact with the soldiers he brought to the Point. He sits at his desk overlooking Tate Rink and opens e-mails from hockey players training in Georgia and Texas, as well as those deployed in the deserts and mountains of the Middle East. He tries to answer them all quickly, because, well, you never know.
On Aug. 30, Hines checked in, telling Coach he'd be following the season on the Internet and to make sure the guys hit the books. He talked about how hard it had been to lose the four men from his unit.
Back in a remote valley in the district of Daychopan, an informant revealed the identity and whereabouts of the man who had planted the bomb that killed the four soldiers. His name was Thor Mullah Manan, and he was a Taliban commander. Manan was hiding in a village called Baylough in a mud house with a courtyard. Hines' squad of eight, along with 16 Afghan soldiers and police, surrounded the house at 1 a.m. While the Afghans were deciding who would make the arrest, Manan burst out into the yard, firing an AK-47. He was disguised, wearing the traditional black robes of a woman.
Manan was cut down, but not before he killed an Afghan interpreter -- and Derek Hines. Hines was 25.
"I knew he was dead as soon as he fell," Kloepper says. "The whole thing couldn't have taken 30 seconds. A minute later he was cold." Coach Riley walked into his office on the morning of Sept. 2, and his heart was in his throat as soon as he saw that Mayfield had called several times without leaving a message. They finally spoke that afternoon. "Hinesy was killed last night," Mayfield said right away.
Riley was in shock. The team hadn't lost any players in combat since Vietnam, and there was no set procedure for what to do. Riley and former and current team members, now in a flurry of contact, talked about how they would honor Hines' memory. They decided to put his initials under the ice for the season and to wear his initials on their helmets. And to Riley, it went without saying that the entire team would head up on a bus to Massachusetts.
On the morning of Sept. 9, 2005, Newburyport was an American town mourning an American hero. The streets were closed, and thousands turned out for the service at Immaculate Conception Church, where Hines had been the altar boy who, one time during Mass, had spilled the sacramental wine. After the service, the procession moved slowly down High Street. As Dennis Hill wrote on 173airborne.com, "There were mothers with their children, older people holding up large flags, schoolchildren with their hands over their hearts, all types of people along the route, two deep for at least two miles to the grave." There were the hundreds of state police who had served with Steven Hines, dozens of cadets and scores of Army Rangers, men whom Derek Hines had served with and veterans of the 173rd who never knew him but considered him a brother. Children held little flags on sticks and signs that said,"God Bless You, Derek." They watched the hearse pass, then the black stallion with no rider -- a pair of boots backward in the stirrups -- then the bagpipes.
In the cemetery, members of the hockey team stood at attention in their gray uniforms. Riley watched as Murphy, Emore, Dudek and a couple of other teammates carried Hines' flag-draped coffin to his grave. The honor guard removed the flag from the casket with slow ceremony, handing it to Sue and Steven. The casket was lowered, and the honor guard fired three rounds into the sky. The bugler began taps, and the cadets snapped into a salute as one, fingers to caps, palms out.
Derek is buried down the road from the Hines' home. There's no gravestone yet; Sue and Steven haven't been able to face choosing the right one. But there is a pile of flowers, and pucks with messages on them, topped by an Army hockey hat. His parents, who face their remaining days without their eldest child, ask themselves inevitable and impossible questions about why he chose service and sacrifice instead of just about anything else.
"Did we make him that way?" asks Sue, sitting at the kitchen table, looking over a stack of letters from teammates, friends and soldiers. "I don't know. You do everything you can to protect your child, but you can't. You know, sometimes I wish he didn't go to West Point." She thinks hard about that and what she's going to say next.
"And then I look at the people he was surrounded by, who they were and what they wanted to do, and I realize he was lucky."
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