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David Ramsey: Air Force's Frank Serratore, back in NCAAs, deserves applause for superb hockey labor

March 19, 2017 Updated: March 19, 2017 at 7:42 pm
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Air Force head coach Frank Serratore talks to Falcon right wing Cole Gunner after he came off the ice against American International College during the first period Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, at the Cadet Fieldhouse Ice Arena on the Air Force Academy. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Joe, who performs wonders in the complex art of plumbing, is devoted to his family, the Lord, doing the job right and the sport of hockey. (Hockey is fourth, I think.)

While recently laboring to remove a stubborn and misbehaving faucet, Joe embarked on a wise assessment of the career of Frank Serratore. Joe has studied the Serratore show at Air Force since this hockey voyage began in 1997.

Joe knows just how awful the Falcons were when Serratore arrived. And Joe admires the heights the Falcons have reached since Serratore's breakthrough 2006-07 season.

"Next time you see Frank, you tell him how much I appreciate him," Joe commanded a sports columnist. "You tell him he has a big fan."

So, Frank, I'm telling you now: Joe appreciates you. Hey, anybody in Colorado Springs who cherishes hockey - and I'm talking to you, Colorado College fans - should appreciate Frank.

After a painful five-year lockout, Serratore and Air Force have returned to the NCAA Tournament. The third-seeded Falcons will play Western Michigan on Friday night at 5:30 in Providence, R.I. This return to hockey's big skate is cause for leaping, shouting and rejoicing, but I can assure you Serratore is allowing a minimum of all three from his Falcons.

Serratore has one win in his six NCAA games, but the low number is deceptive. The Falcons have lost by one goal four times and in overtime three times. They have arrived achingly close to victory.

Close is not good enough for Serratore. He's talked openly since the dawn of this season about skating to the Frozen Four on April 6-8 in Chicago. His players share his swagger. They are not - and this is an essential truth - content to only compete in the NCAAs. They seek victory, and nothing less.

This is a talented, deep, hungry edition of the Falcons. Sophomore goaltender Shane Starrett is on a serious tear after allowing two goals in the past four games. The Falcons have scored four or more goals 14 times, including six in a breezy Nov. 26 demolition of Colorado College. There is solid reason to dream big.

At the center of the team resides Serratore, who serves as chief dreamer.

I was on the phone a couple of weeks back with Frank. We talk several times a year. We talk about restaurants, the struggles of his beloved Minnesota Vikings, politics, DU hockey, the Florida Keys and, mostly, about family.

Frank was talking about his father, Frank Sr., and the lessons offered from a contented-but-never-satisfied man. Frank Sr. spent his early adulthood mining iron ore in northern Minnesota before being drafted to serve in the Korean War, which broadened his ambitions. Frank Sr. employed the G.I. Bill to become a teacher.

"He's a bright, confrontational guy who loved to argue," Frank said of his father. "He would have made a great lawyer."

Frank laughed as he thought back to his father's best days. Frank Sr. now resides in an assisted living center.

"He worked hard," Frank said. "I mean, really hard. One thing about our family: We're all hard workers. There's not much lukewarm in our family. You do it all the way or you don't do it. There's not much middle ground."

Not much middle ground? I don't think there's any. Serratore is always fully engaged and fully vulnerable. He's openly ravenous for victory. Don't get me wrong: Serratore understands he's employed at a military academy, which never will be mistaken for a win-at-all-costs hockey factory.

He's traveled so far. In 1996-97, the year before Serratore's arrival, the Falcons won eight games against a weak schedule. In 2016-2017, the Falcons have won 26 games while playing a rugged schedule that included Denver and Boston College.

Serratore could have departed the academy for a traditional university and a bigger salary and - this is really important - the opportunity to recruit Canadians. He never did. He savors life in Colorado Springs, and he appreciates the patient loyalty shown to him by the academy. It took nine seasons for Serratore to fully revive his Falcons, and the academy's faith in his rescue effort never faltered.

The reward for that faith has been a rarity: An ideal marriage between a coach and his school. This highly successful marriage is cause for applause.

A few weeks ago, a Serratore fan finally yanked free a rusty, aged faucet. The fan never stopped talking hockey during his efforts.

"Serratore does his job the right way," a determined, expert plumber said.

You got that right, Joe.

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