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David Ramsey: Air Force's Billy Christopoulos prepares for the massive hockey task of replacing Shane Starrett

April 19, 2017 Updated: April 21, 2017 at 9:15 am
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Billy Christopoulos, goalie for the U.S. Air Force Academy Falcons, deflects a shot as the Falcons met the University of Calgary Dinos in an exhibition college hockey matchup at the Academy's Cadet Ice Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo., Oct. 5, 2015. The Falcons defeated Calgary 5-0. Air Force opened its regular season against the No. 5 ranked University of Denver Pioneers at the Cadet Ice Arena Oct. 9. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

Billy Christopoulos is trying to convince me, and everyone else, the task ahead is a breeze. Replacing Shane Starrett as Air Force's lead goaltender will be no big deal, Christopoulos insists.

Don't get him wrong. He's not bragging. To talk with Christopoulos is to talk of team.

It will be a breeze because of his teammates.

"They're unbelievable," he says of his fellow Falcons. "They make the goalie's job easy."

A couple of weeks ago, Christopoulos was destined to spend almost all of next season watching from the bench as Starrett stood in front of the Air Force goal. Then Starrett signed a two-season, $325,000 contract to play minor league hockey in the Edmonton Oilers system.

Starrett's move jolted Christopoulos' hockey life. The 2017-2018 hockey team is, on paper, the deepest and most promising ever to compete for Air Force, but it faces one major question mark:

Can Christopoulos deliver elite, Starrett-like work in front of the net?

"I'm not too worried about that," Christopoulos says as he relaxes a few dozen yards from Air Force's hockey rink. "My team takes a lot of pressure off me."

Team. With Christopoulos, it's always about team.

He knows better. He plays a position that sets him apart from team. A goaltender spends long stretches of a game as an irrelevant piece on the ice. He's a masked loner, waiting for those instants when he transcends into the most vital piece on the ice.

It's a viciously demanding position. It's a position that tests, minute by minute, a young person's inner strength. It's a position that can break you, and your team.

It's a position that Starrett had mastered, at the college level. He carried the 2016-17 Falcons to the NCAA Tournament. The Falcons struggled in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament, including scoring only three goals during their two-win march at Rochester, N.Y., to college hockey's big skate. Starrett, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, was utterly brilliant, allowing only one goal.

Coach Frank Serratore was stunned and saddened by Starrett's departure. With Starrett back, the Falcons might have vaulted into the nation's preseason top 10. Two more trips to the NCAA Tournament would have been probable, if not certain. The Falcons might have skated to the Frozen Four, the elusive goal of Serratore's career.

Serratore is a devoted fan of Christopoulos. He compliments the goaltender's work ethic and popularity with his teammates. He's rooting for The Man Who Will Replace Starrett to succeed.

But Serratore, a former goaltender, understands the physic demands of the position.

"Billy is all about the team, team, team," Serratore says, "but the bottom line is once you get out there in front of the net, you're on somewhat of an island. You're the last line of defense."

When looking at only numbers, the Christopoulos quest in 2017-18 looks shaky. He finished 1-4-1 as a starter last season, compared to Starrett's 26-6-4.

But he could reveal those past numbers as deceptive. Christopoulos seldom soared last season, but he showed promise in his limited role.

Next season, he will prepare every day knowing he's the Falcons' primary wall in front of the net. He could grow into the job. And he's right about the 2017-18 team. It's a deep, powerful collection of talent. The Falcons required greatness from Starrett during many games this season. Next season, Air Force only needs Christopoulos to be very good.

He does a fine job of trying to convince me, and himself, that he's not facing an earthshaking challenge. That's understandable.

Remember, playing goaltender is the ultimate mind game.