skip navigation

Army’s Zach McKelvie on the Importance of Character

By Steve Mann, 04/04/24, 3:45PM MDT


When it comes to youth hockey, winning shouldn’t only be defined by what happens on the ice. It’s a player’s character and values that will have the biggest long-term impact.

How young athletes are taught to respect the game, their teammates, coaches, opponents and officials, and themselves, may influence their lives long after their hockey playing days are over. This is how our athletes win … at life.

In his career, Army West Point Associate Head Hockey Coach Zach McKelvie has been recognized for his accomplishments as a player, but also as a person, for his outstanding character. He earned the Mike Krzyzewski Teaching Character Through Sport Award, for his commitment to the development of character through athletic participation and leadership. He was also a past winner of the team’s Community Man of the Year.

McKelvie, a New Brighton, Minn., native who was captain for Army and played five years of pro hockey, shared his thoughts on how it can impact an individual and also an entire hockey program. 

USA Hockey: In addition to on-ice recognition, you’ve been rewarded for your character and demonstrating strong character. How much does it mean to you to be recognized for that?

Zach McKelvie: It’s a good feeling. You want to go about your life in the right way, so when you get recognized for character and leadership it’s always an honor. At the same time, I think I’m more of a product of my parents and West Point than anything. So, really the foundation of my character comes from my upbringing. 

USA Hockey: Why is character so important – for players, coaches and officials and everyone around the sport?

McKelvie: I think character is everything. It defines who you are. We say it a lot, your character is about how you are when nobody is looking. It’s easy to be a good person, a good teammate or a good coach when everybody has their eyes on you. It’s also about how are you in your personal life, with your family or friends. So that’s one of the easy ways we define character. With all that said, I think it’s the foundation for every successful athlete and every successful coach, so it’s extremely important. It’s maybe the most important thing that we look for in our recruits, too. 

USA Hockey: What are some ways athletes of all ages and coaches can display character?

McKelvie: Respect for one another is an easy one. It’s not hard to respect people. It’s not hard to respect the officials, your opponent, your teammates, or coaches. If you’re at a rink and you’re one of the kids that’s constantly getting into it with the other team that shows a lack of respect. It may not mean you have low character, but it may mean you have to work on some things. Another one is how you act when your coach isn’t watching. It’s a huge indicator of a young athlete’s character. Same goes for the coaches. What are you saying about your players when they’re not around? So, I think there are a lot of ways to display character. Those are two ways we talk about a lot. 

USA Hockey: If you have a team that collectively shows character, and plays with respect, do you think that can improve their performance on the ice?

McKelvie: I would say there’s a pretty strong correlation between high-character teams and your win percentage. They’re certainly not mutually exclusive. Character’s not going to hurt your team in any way. Maybe it doesn’t translate to winning the championship, but it will never hurt your team. And the biggest thing about character in the team environment, is if you have a high-character team, when those moments of adversity come, you’re going to be able to get through them. Teams that have low character typically can’t get through adverse events or adverse times of the season. As with our recruits, it’s maybe the most important thing we look at. I think in the team character sense, it’s just as important as your skill level, there’s no doubt. 

USA Hockey: How can youth hockey coaches teach and build character in our young athletes?

McKelvie: I think it’s just teaching them what respect looks like. For a youth coach, when you show up to the rink, show positivity toward the other team and demonstrate good sportsmanship. These kids are watching us, and how we act. Are the coaches introducing themselves to the other coaches, are they introducing themselves to the ref? In-game, it’s important for coaches to keep a calm demeanor on the bench because their athletes are watching everything they do and absorbing it all. They may not imitate them right now, or in a year, but they may imitate them in five years or 10 years. So, those are things we try to do. We don’t always get it right, of course. But those are easy ways for youth coaches to help develop the young athletes they coach. 

I think a lot of youth coaches focus solely on hockey. And, I do think it's a great opportunity before and after practice, or when the kids are getting ready, to talk to them about leadership or what sportsmanship looks like. Take 2-3 minutes because those moments can be really influential on the young boys and girls and their life. I was fortunate to have great coaches that talked to us about character and leadership and that provided me a great foundation to look at things in a positive way. 

USA Hockey: Do you feel like it’s the coach’s job to teach character, or is it a responsibility of all adults that are around our young athletes?

McKelvie: It’s definitely the responsibility of all adults. But if you sign up to be a coach, building character is more important than developing their talent as a hockey player. Because we all want these kids to play college hockey, we all have dreams of developing them and helping them accomplish their dreams of playing in the NHL. But the bottom line is the vast majority of young players will never play D-III or D-I hockey and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hockey is a great way to develop their character. 

USA Hockey: Do you feel like times have changed since your earlier days in the sport, in terms of character around the game and the importance people place on it?

McKelvie: Great question. Because I remember being a Peewee hockey player in Minnesota and there was a fight between parents in the parking lot. Had that happened now it would be all over social media. So, I’m not sure how much has changed, or if it’s gotten worse or better. I do think as the adults, we do need to take a step back and it’s on us – the trash talking, the way we speak to officials, the way we interact with each other after wins or losses – there’s no doubt we can all improve in that way. College coaches share some of that responsibility, too. A lot of youth teams come into our games and see both coaches going at the ref, or watch a NHL game and see the players backtalking the ref, they think it’s normal. So, I think we can all get better. 

USA Hockey: Is there a player or coach you’ve been around that you have an appreciation for who has been a great character player?

McKelvie: As both a player and a coach at West Point, I’ve been fortunate to be around a high number of high-character people. Two guys that graduated recently are Eric Butte and Colin Bilek. They were captains here a couple years ago. They embodied everything that a West Point cadet is. They also embodied what we want our players to be, extremely high-character guys. They would show up and do all the right things, say all the right things. When nobody was looking, they were doing all the right things. And now one has gone on to become a Ranger in the Army and the other is playing professional hockey. They were loyal, they were selfless, they were humble. The list goes on. And I know I just named two guys, but there have been so many that myself and Coach Riley have been able to coach here. 

USA Hockey: How do you continue to grow and learn as a coach?

McKelvie: I think growing and learning are maybe the most underrated, but most important, things for coaches. If you’re not learning and evolving, trying to find new ways to connect with the guys, you’re probably going to get passed by. We try to do professional development with other coaches as much as possible in the offseason. There are also great resources out there like the USA Hockey website and some good coaches’ conferences. Studying leadership, reading books, is also an important aspect of growing as a coach.

More News: