Rivalries make sporting events special. International rivalries make them personal. The Army-RMC rivalry turns 75 this February when the Black Knights travel to Kingston, Ontario, in continuation of the “oldest continuous international rivalry in sports.”
A grudge match that spans international borders and began with Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Maj. Gen. Sir Archibald MacDonnell 74 years ago is just as vibrant and fierce as it was in the Roaring ’20s.
Rob Riley, former coach and older brother to current head coach Brian Riley, tilted the international rivalry with their Canadian counterparts south of the border upon assuming the reins from his father, Jack, in 1986-87. Army authored a 12-game unbeaten streak (10-0-2) against Royal Military College after a 4-3 setback in Riley’s first season. Since then, the Black Knights have won five of the last six meetings and now hold a 10-game advantage in the overall series.
Included in Riley’s run of success was a streak of seven straight victories in which Army outscored RMC, 41-9. The Black Knights bring a three-game winning streak into this year’s encounter.
Over the years, the rivalry has taken on epic proportions similar to the Army-Navy football contest.
“The RMC game is a great experience because not only are you playing another military academy, but you are representing your country as well,” said Deputy AD Col. Jim Knowlton, former forward for the Black Knights’ icers. “(Army) always played with additional intensity, and the game was one of the most physical of the season. It is a great battle that takes everyone’s game to the next level.”
The Military Academy also recognizes the importance of this rivalry. Any athlete who participates in a win over RMC receives a gold maple leaf to be worn over his or her varsity “A” letter. Athletes who secure wins over Navy receive a gold star, while wins over Air Force earn a silver star.
The idea of a hockey matchup between the Canadian and American service academies sprouted in 1921 from then Brig. General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur, superintendent of the Military Academy, wrote a letter to Maj. Gen. Sir Archibald MacDonnell, commandant of RMC, to suggest that the two military schools play.
Letters and ideas continued to be exchanged between the two academy leaders and details were finalized. On Feb. 23, 1923, a party of Royal Military College officers and cadets trekked to West Point for the first game.
That inaugural contest was played on a natural rink adjacent to the West Point Gymnasium, now known as Arvin Gym. The Black Knights, who began playing hockey in 1904, used that open-air surface until they moved into Smith Rink on Jan. 31, 1931.
The Paladins won that first game, 3-0. The New York Tribune gave the following account of that first encounter, “Army was beaten at hockey today by the Royal Military College of Kingston, Ontario. The Canadian cadets excelled the Army men all the way, displaying the best all around form seen here in years. Hamilton and the two Carr-Harrises were the outstanding stars on the Canadian team. Beano (the Army goalie), was a busy man and made some truly remarkable saves ... The game was one of the cleanest fought contests staged here this winter, and was marked by a fine display of sportsmanship on both sides.”
In commemoration of that first game, RMC presented a cup known as the “Challenge Trophy” to the United States Military Academy. Although the trophy was expected to remain at West Point, a myth arose in the early years of the series that the trophy was presented to the losing team.
The following winter, 1924, the Black Knights traveled to Kingston. Army had played hockey since 1904 (138 games) and this was the first contest away from West Point. In fact, with the exception of their trips to Canada every other year, Army continued to play only home games until 1941.
Royal Military College won that 1924 tilt 10-5, ruining the homecoming of first-year Army coach Ray Marchand.
The Pointer, the Corps newspaper, said of this game, “... Moreover, stronger opponents than the Canadian cadets could hardly have been found anywhere. That the men emerged on the short end of the score as close as ten to five is little short of miraculous.
“The international contest was noteworthy also for the clean sportsmanship that prevailed. Not a foul marred the progress of the game, and both schools are eager to continue the annual meeting of the two service academies.”
No penalties were called in the series until 1954. In that game, at the urging of Army coach Jack Riley, infractions were called. The first penalty came against Dirk Lueders, the Army goalie.
The Paladins dominated the early series, winning 14 of the first 15 games, with the other ending in a 4-4 tie in 1935.
Army earned its first victory in 1939, a 3-2 decision in Kingston. After a two-year break, the matchup resumed in 1942 with Army winning, 3-1. Royal Military College closed during World War II, and when the teams met again in 1949, the Black Knights secured a 5-4 win as parity finally seeped into the series.
Riley took over the Army program in 1951 and the Black Knights quickly gained ground on its adversaries from the north. Army won 15 of the 20 games in the 1950s and 1960s to forge an 18-21-1 record in the overall series.
“It is similar to the Army-Navy football game,” Riley said. “U.S. and Canadian ambassadors have been known to attend. It is always very intense.”
The early 1970s was the “tie” era, with three of the four contests between 1973 and 1976 ending deadlocked. Interestingly, four of the six ties in the series happened to be 4-4.
Overtime was not played during these years. The only previous overtime game went to RMC, 3-2, in 1955. In the early 1980s, it was decided that overtime would be reinstated. Until the 1998 game, the two most recent overtime contests had been in 1989 and 1990.
Rich Sheridan’s last minute goal gave Army a 3-2 win in 1989, while his apparent last-second goal in regulation was disallowed in 1990 and the game finished deadlocked 3-3 following a scoreless extra session.
The teams played evenly from the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s, each winning five games. When Riley retired in 1986, he had brought the Black Knights to within one game of overtaking RMC in the series. At that time, the Paladins held a slight 26-25-4 edge. But since the arrival of Riley’s son, Rob, to the Army bench, Army has dominated its military brothers.
The Black Knights did not lose to the Royal Military College of Canada in the 1990s. Two ties, in 1990 and 1998, were the only blemishes on an otherwise spectacular 10-year run. RMC’s 3-0 win in 2000 ended a 12-game unbeaten streak and got the Paladins off to a good start in the new millenium. However, Army rebounded with a big win at Tate Rink in 2001 that has seemingly tipped the scales in the Americans’ favor once again.
In 2003 as a salute to both country’s men and women defending the world’s freedom overseas, the National Hockey League supplied officials for the contest held in the Kingston Memorial Centre. Former RMC head coach Danny MacLeod contacted the NHL, which was able to comply with the former coaching legend’s request as most officials enjoyed a weekend off for the professional league’s annual all-star game.
Jack Riley, who coached Army Hockey from 1951 through 1986, was behind the bench for 22 victories, finishing his career with a 22-11-3 (.653) record against the Paladins. Rob etched a remarkable 13-3-2 (.778) account in his 18 seasons at the helm, while Marchand posted two victories and Len Patten added the other.
In 2005, Brian Riley notched a victory in his first game versus RMC, accomplishing something his father and brother failed to do. Last season, Army and RMC skated to a 3-3 draw in Kingston. Together, the Riley family has accounted for 36 of Army’s 39 wins in the history of the series.
Although the rivalry began as a hockey-only battle, the rivalry has expanded over the years to include competition in rifle, pistol, men’s volleyball, karate, judo and debating. The annual encounter with RMC is billed as “RMC Weekend” at the military academy. The atmosphere in the arena always resembles that of an Olympic event, complete with spectators waving their country’s flag in support of their team.
2006-07 Army-RMC Series
Hockey: Feb. 10, 2007 (West Point, N.Y.), 7 p.m.