Matt Pulver watched on TV as Air Force went to double overtime in an NCAA Tournament regional final in 2009. He knew that was where he wanted to play.
He made it to the academy, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing. Still, Pulver’s teammates elected him to captain the 2019-20 squad.
“It was really exciting, and it still is really exciting,” Pulver said. “I’m really humbled knowing the guys that came before me, like Dylan Abood, Max Hartner.
“This is a good group, really easy to work with. Makes my job a little easier.”
Coach Frank Serratore is relieved Pulver is still the guy he was before the “C” was stitched onto his jersey. He’s seen players become new people once they take on the responsibility, and not always for the better.
“Great captains take responsibility, lead without jamming it down everyone’s throats,” Serratore said. “He’s still liked.”
Pulver has already gone through a transformation of sorts. Once more of a “skill” player with a scoring touch, shoulder injuries cut heavily into his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Serratore remembers having to take Pulver to the hospital because trainers couldn’t fix his shoulder. He was in severe pain and had to be sedated because his muscles wouldn’t relax.
“It was painful to me just sitting there listening to it,” Serratore said.
After multiple surgeries and lost games, it was time for a new chapter.
“To come back and be that skill guy is kind of tough. I knew I had to change my game,” Pulver said. “I simplified it and really listened to what (Andy) Berg, (Joe) Doyle and Frank were saying. I modeled my game after hard work and doing the little things, playing well defensively.
“I knew in order to get in the lineup even last year, at the beginning of the season, I had to be a penalty kill specialist. It was good for me, because I’d never been in that position before on any team I’d played on. Learned a lot about myself, helped me out as a person as well, so I’m grateful for that.”
Serratore agreed that the change, while hard-earned, wasn’t without benefit.
“He’s got so much more substance in his game right now,” Serratore said. “We trust him in every situation.”
Last season, Pulver pitched in on Air Force’s penalty kill, and the team finished the season ranked first in the country in efficiency (88.9%). In the offensive zone, he’s strong on the puck down low, feeding his teammates. He appeared in all 36 games, a victory in itself.
The role doesn’t lend itself to impressive point totals. But he’s added some needed intensity, and now, leadership.
“He is a tank. He is one strong kid,” Serratore said. “He’s a courageous player. There is zero indication that he was ever injured the way he was.
“He’s in a position right now to have a terrific senior year.”