Gazette Coach of the Year — Frank Serratore, Air Force hockey

In the aftermath of a disaster, Air Force hockey coach Frank Serratore sat in his office and wondered aloud if the “Golden Years” were gone.

It was the offseason following the 2014-2015 season. Serratore’s Falcons had skated to a 16-21-4 record, the program’s first losing season since 2005-2006. The Falcons had lost nine games by three or more goals and failed to travel to the Atlantic Hockey semis for the third straight year.

“I can’t handle The Golden Years being in my rearview mirror,” Serratore said during a far-ranging and typically intense two-hour conversation.

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Serratore was talking about 2007-2012 when the Falcons traveled to five NCAA Tournaments in six seasons. He remembered a program that lost 84 games in four seasons (2002-06) before transforming to win 84 games in the next four seasons.

Turns out, some of the most golden of Serratore’s seasons were on the horizon. The Falcons skipped to three straight winning seasons after Serratore’s soul-searching of 2015.

The past two seasons (2016-2017 and 2017-2018) have been glorious. Air Force has finished 50-25-10, traveled to the NCAA Tournament and last season skated within one game of the Frozen Four. Serratore’s current Falcons are 9-7 and have won three of four.

It’s not easy to win at Air Force. Just ask Troy Calhoun, who has seen his football team stumble to 14 losses in 22 games against Bowl Subdivision opponents.

But it’s especially difficult to win in hockey. Serratore cannot recruit youthful Canadians, who grow up in a hockey-obsessed culture. He must form his teams with residents of the United States of America, land of the free and home to tens of millions who care little for hockey.

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The University of Denver, sometimes known as The Evil Empire of the North, is a national college hockey powerhouse. One reason for all that power: The Pioneers boast 13 non-U.S. players on their roster.

Serratore emphasizes the upside of his job. His players, he says, don’t gripe. They don’t worry about statistics. They play unselfishly.

Their coach could have departed for an easier, more lucrative job. Serratore chose to stay.

“I’ve been around the block,” he once told me, “and the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I’ve been there, done that. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best job is the one you have. You do a good job, the rest will take of itself.”

Last season ranks as Serratore’s masterpiece. He lost goalkeeper Shane Starrett to the NHL draft. He lacked elite talent on attack or defense.

The Falcons struggled early, but blended into a no-star-but-still-mighty team. Heading into the national quarterfinals, Air Force had won nine of 12 games, including a dominating 4-1 victory over powerful St. Cloud in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Falcons lost to Minnesota-Duluth, 2-1, to end the season.

Serratore is open about his desire to compete in a Frozen Four.

He’s the rare coach who freely talks about his ambitions, and he wants his players to talk just as freely.

He remains hungry. He refuses to limit his team. He’s 61. He wants that Frozen Four before he retires.

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