When Defense Secretary James Mattis took away hockey, Parker Gahagen went out and made history. Now he wants to make the U.S. Olympic team.
The Army goaltender simply wants to be all that he can be – but it's been far from simple.
"I've been talking to four-star generals and colonels," said Gahagen's agent, Michael Wulkan. "It's crazy."
Gahagen, an Amherst native who played for Williamsville North High School and the Buffalo Junior Sabres, nearly reached the pinnacle of his sport in the spring. After completing an award-filled collegiate career for the Army at West Point, Gahagen agreed to a contract with the NHL's San Jose Sharks.
"The contract is basically in a drawer right now," Wulkan said.
There were rumblings in March and April that the newly appointed Mattis was determined to make another policy change regarding military athletes. On and off since the mid-1980s, exceptional athletes have been allowed to turn pro and fulfill their military duties while they played or after their careers ended. Although it seemed remote Mattis would change that, Gahagen and the Sharks were cautious and didn't file the contract.
On April 29, the rumblings shook Gahagen's world.
"The military academies and ROTC exist to develop future officers who enhance the readiness and lethality of our military services," Mattis wrote in a memo. "During their first two years following graduation, officers will serve as full-fledged military officers carrying out normal work and career expectations of an officer who has received the extraordinary benefits of an ROTC or military academy education at taxpayer expense."
The hockey career of Gahagen, who is a second lieutenant, was suddenly on hold.
"I definitely understand the policy," the 24-year-old said this week. "It's just that they go back and forth on it a lot."
Before the 1980s, there was no ambiguity. Athletes at the military academies fulfilled their duties before playing professionally. The most famous example is Roger Staubach, who won the Heisman Trophy as the best college football player in 1963 but served in the Navy for four years – including a tour in Vietnam – before starting his Hall of Fame career in the NFL.
Things changed in the mid-1980s with a pair of Navy athletes. Napoleon McCallum was allowed to play in the NFL, and David Robinson jumped to the NBA. The trend has continued, though there have been war-related interruptions. Just last year, Navy's Keenan Reynolds graduated to the NFL to join other military officers.
No more, said Mattis. Service before self.
Gahagen wants it known he's not trying to dodge service. He knew nothing about the Army until it heavily recruited him during his two seasons with the Junior Sabres from 2011 to 2013, so he studied the military academy and understood what attending West Point meant.
But as he grew into one of the top collegiate goalies in the nation, his dream of following in the professional footsteps of Robinson, Reynolds and others came closer to reality.
"It'd be great to serve my country, but at the same time it's been my dream since I started playing hockey to play in the NHL," Gahagen said. "I would love to be able to see it through and see how far I can get, whether I do my service after I play out my career or even just be able to serve the Army in a way that's more marketing or advertisement based.
"I can't be thankful enough for what Army and West Point have done for me. They've given me this opportunity, and they've been amazing in supporting me and helping me take each of these steps. I definitely want to give back to them as well, but at the same time I want to serve them in a way that I can pursue this dream in hockey."
The issue went all the way to Mattis' desk, but no exception was made.
During Wulkan's discussions with the Army hockey coaches, they came up with one final idea. The Army has a World Class Athlete Program. It provides outstanding soldier-athletes with the training needed to succeed in competitions leading up to Olympic and Paralympic Games while maintaining a professional military career and promoting the U.S. Army to the world.
The problem for Gahagen was only individual athletes had been admitted to the program. There were wrestlers, runners, marksmen and boxers, but no hockey players.
Though he was a victim of bad timing with Mattis' ruling, Gahagen caught a break regarding the Olympics. The NHL has decided not to send its players to South Korea in February for the 2018 Games, so countries are looking elsewhere for talent.
Jim Johannson, the general manager of USA Hockey's Olympic team, sent a letter of recommendation for Gahagen to the World Class Athlete Program. Johannson said Gahagen was on the country's list of potential goalies for the Games.
That was enough. In late October, Gahagen became the first team player accepted to the World Class Athlete Program.
"It's definitely a great opportunity to be the first one through, but at the same time there's some uncertainty while you're going through it," Gahagen said. "You kind of just have to trust in the process and the people that are involved."
Among the most trusting were the San Jose Sharks. Goaltending jobs are limited, so holding a spot for a player who might not be available for two years or more is tough.
"Obviously, you're worried about the Sharks giving up," said the Williamsville-based Wulkan, "but they've been pretty cool with the situation."
The Army allowed Gahagen to briefly join the Sharks for their development and rookie camps this summer. After achieving World Class Athlete status, he joined their minor-league team in San Jose last week. He's on an amateur tryout contract, made necessary since Gahagen can't collect paychecks from both the team and military.
"It's nice to finally be out here, that's for sure," Gahagen said from San Jose after working out with the Barracuda of the American Hockey League. "I didn't really doubt that I'd get out here, it was just more the process I had to go through. That's the problem with being the first one through the door is you have to work out the kinks."
He also has to work out the kinks in his goaltending. While others have been playing games and practicing, Gahagen has continued his officer training. He attended Adjutant General School at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., learning personnel management.
His wife, Kaitlyn, graduated from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Every other weekend, the couple would make the 4½-hour drive from South Carolina to Virginia so Gahagen could practice with Liberty's club hockey team.
That's a big difference from facing professionals, so Gahagen needs more practice with the Barracuda before playing.
"It's just getting back to where I was and getting to the level where they want me to be at and I want to be at before they throw me in," he said.
Before the career uncertainty, Gahagen was at an elite level. He ranks first on Army's career list with a .926 save percentage in 104 starts. He recorded a .934 save percentage as a senior while leading the team to the semifinals of the Atlantic Hockey Association playoffs.
"He is an athletic, rising goaltender that has especially shown good consistency the last two years," Johannson, the USA Hockey general manager, said by email. "He is a candidate on our eligible long list for the Olympics, and we are hopeful he gets some quality playing time over the next seven weeks to be evaluated and considered for a roster spot on the 2018 Olympic team."
Gahagen's inclusion on the team could be a marketing windfall for the military and USA Hockey, a made-for-television tale about a soldier and athlete representing his country in dual roles.
It would, of course, need to be based on merit, too. There are approximately eight goalies in consideration for three jobs, including Williamsville native David Leggio, who is playing professionally in Germany. The team is expected to be announced in late December.
So far, nothing has stopped Gahagen – not even America's secretary of defense.
"It's something that I definitely did not see coming," Gahagen said of the Olympic chance. "Your dream is always to play in the NHL and do whatever you can in order to achieve that. This is just like frosting on the cake.
"It's a great opportunity to serve your country. I've been able to do it in a different way, but it would be an honor to be on the team."
Story topics: Parker Gahagen