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David Ramsey: Air Force hockey star Shane Starrett makes mistake in signing pro contract

April 10, 2017 Updated: April 11, 2017 at 6:09 am
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Air Force goalie Shane Starrett makes a save against Canisius during the first period at the Cadet Ice Arena at Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Shane Starrett is a towering collection of hockey potential who might have carried Air Force to the Frozen Four next season.

Instead, he signed a contract with the Edmonton Oilers to play goaltender in minor-league arenas. He will earn a total of $325,000 over two seasons.

Remaining a cadet, and betting on himself, was his best option. Yes, a big pile of money was on the table, and it's tough for any 22-year-old to say no to $325,000.

But it was a mistake to depart the academy.

A bigger pile of money would have been on the table in two years. Plus, Starrett would have earned his Air Force degree, added brawn to his skinny 6-foot-5 frame, increased his confidence, discarded his weaknesses and more fully prepared himself for a long career as a goaltender in the National Hockey League.

"We felt it was good to make the decision now," Starrett said Monday afternoon of his family's decision to sign. "You don't know if this opportunity would present itself again in the future. We felt, 'Take it now.'"

Take it now ended an unlikely, inspiring academy success story. Two years ago, Starrett had been cast adrift by Boston University. He had once ranked among the nation's most promising teen recruits, but BU coaches questioned his development and rescinded their scholarship offer.

Air Force coach Frank Serratore picked up Starrett at the last moment after losing 21 games in 2014-15. The Falcons were teetering, and required a return to superior goaltending.

At the time, Starrett hardly seemed the answer to Serratore's problems.

"I was a down-on-his-luck kid, pretty mentally weak," Starrett said.

Life at the academy transformed him. Basic training began a process that toughened Starrett mentally and physically. The goalie that BU didn't want matured into one of the nation's best collegiate goalies. Starrett was the prime reason Air Force skated into the nation's final eight this season. He was usually spectacular, finishing with a 26-6-4 record as a starter with five shutouts and a 1.99 goals-against-average.

"The cornerstone of our team," Air Force coach Frank Serratore said.

As Starrett sat at a table talking with reporters, he was joined by the Pikes Peak Trophy, which recognizes Air Force's annual defeat of Colorado College, and the Atlantic Hockey Tournament champion trophy.

Even more trophies could have been ahead next season. With Starrett in goal, Serratore was looking at the most promising team of his two-decade run at the academy. Everything in college hockey was possible for the Falcons.

Without Starrett, Air Force will struggle mightily to return to the NCAA Tournament. Serratore has directed his Falcons to six NCAA rides. Each time, he's been blessed with an elite goaltender (Andrew Volkening, Jason Torf and Starrett).

Starrett's two-season career at Air Force reminds me of Richard Bachman, who delivered his own extraordinary two seasons for Colorado College from 2007-09 before departing to sign with the Dallas Stars.

Bachman, 29, has crafted a decent career with 36 NHL starts, but most of his nights have been spent in front of minor-league nets in Boise, Idaho, Oklahoma City and Utica, N.Y. If Bachman had stayed at CC two more years, he could have better developed his considerable talent.

Look at former CC goaltender Curtis McElhinney, who led the Tigers to the 2005 Frozen Four. McEllhinney, 33, ignored the money on the table and played four seasons for the Tigers. He arrived in the NHL fully prepared, and he's still in the big league after 120 starts.

Starrett must prepare for a vast change in his life. He thrived in the academy's strict atmosphere. He was up each day at dawn, and virtually every minute of every day was planned. In this rigorous climate, he traveled from reject to potential All-American.

The pros will be vastly different, with oceans of free time and big collection of disgruntled veterans who love to party. An endless array of temptation awaits. Starrett now earns good money to play a game. He can expect little - or maybe no - patience.

I hope he's ready.