Could this Air Force Academy Player be the First to Make it to the NHL?

NHL, Air Force Academy. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
NHL, Air Force Academy. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

With the draft in the offseason rearview mirror, many NHL teams are starting to hold development camps for their prospects. Among them is the New Jersey Devils. The Devils welcomed a New Jersey native to camp this year in Luke Rowe.

Robert Aitken Jr. reported on how he might be one of the few New Jersey-born players to play for the team at the NHL level (along with Jim Dowd and Kenny Agostino) but ended his article with a footnote that Rowe is part of an even more exclusive club.

Rowe is currently on the Air Force Academy’s hockey team playing college hockey as a junior. He is also currently the captain of the team. His motivation to go to the Air Force Academy came not from college hockey aspirations, but a desire to follow his grandfather, who was an Army Air Corps pilot. Rowe’s ultimate goal is to become an HH-60 helicopter pilot.

The Air Force Academy has never had a player make the NHL.

Even if that Air Force goal is front and center, Rowe still has his hockey dream in the back of his mind. Aitken mentions that Rowe could become the first NHL player ever to be a cadet in the Air Force prior to playing in the league. Shooting pucks and being a real-life “Top Gun” is an impressive combination.

How rare is it for Air Force Academy hockey players to turn pro? Hockey Database lists 80 players who continued their hockey careers post their Air Force Academy days since the team started in the 1968-1969 season.

29 have played in North American minor leagues that still exist to this day (AHL, ECHL, FPHL/FHL, and the SPHL). That figure doesn’t include players who transferred from Air Force to a different NCAA program. Only five have made it as high as the AHL.

Goalie Shane Starrett was the most recent, playing one game with the Coachella Valley Firebirds, the Seattle Kraken’s AHL affiliate last season. Starrett spent most of the season in the ECHL where he was named their goaltender of the week in February.

He had signed an entry-level contract with the Edmonton Oilers in 2017. Starrett had a few scattered appearances with their then-AHL affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors, over the past few seasons.

He signed with the Providence Bruins, the AHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins, earlier this month.

The odds are seemingly stacked against Rowe. He knows there’s a “long road” ahead, which includes another year of NCAA eligibility. If Rowe loved the experience of wearing a real Devils jersey in camp, just imagine how he’ll feel if he gets to wear one in front of 15,000 hockey fans.

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Even if Starrett beats him to the NHL, being one of the first Air Force hockey players to make the NHL is sure to be an accomplishment that will last a lifetime.