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Hockey, hard work part of life at Air Force, host of Stadium Series - NHL.com

Hockey, hard work part of life at Air Force, host of Stadium Series - NHL.com
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The sun, slowly climbing, bathed the spartan room in a soft light, highlighting an evergreen-dappled mountain looming outside its solitary window.

When the spectacular view was pointed out to C2C Jacob Levin, Air Force Academy Cadet, one of the two occupants of the dormitory room at the U.S. Air Force Academy, it was greeted by a shrug.

"I don t see it too much," the junior said. "It s dark when I wake up and it s dark when I go to bed."

In between the start and finish of Levin s day, there is too much going on for him to take the time to put up his feet and savor the natural beauty that defines the campus he has called home for the past three years.

Free time is a luxury rarely enjoyed here; it s even more precious, and elusive, for a student-athlete, particularly in-season.

Levin, a defenseman for the Division I men s hockey team, is well into his season. In fact, this week is one of the biggest and most important on the hockey calendar for Air Force.

But those games are a few days away. The 23-year-old has plenty to take care of on this blustery and bitterly cold Wednesday.

Almost every day, at least while school is in session, Levin faces a 16-hour slog that challenges him mentally, physically and emotionally. This is not atypical for a cadet; it is the norm in an existence that sharpens the young men and women who endure those days into Air Force s leaders of tomorrow.

The Air Force and Levin allowed NHL.com to accompany him for a day, granting almost unfettered access to his comings in goings to detail the unique lifestyle of a cadet.

Levin s day starts with a pre-sunrise wakeup. At this point in his Air Force career, an alarm is a safeguard, not a necessity.

"I wake up at 6:30 even if I don t have to be up," he says. "I have no control over it anymore. I m a robot."

Levin puts on his Airman Battle Uniform, fatigue pants and a blouse over a green T-shirt. Despite the sub-freezing temperature and strong wind howling across the quad, known as The Terrazo, he doesn t don a coat. Hailing from Mequon, Wisconsin, Levin has become inured to the weather that is part and parcel of living more than 7,200 feet above sea level during the winter.

A serve-yourself breakfast is available at Mitchell Hall, the Academy s mess hall. Levin stops there for a quick bite before heading to Fairchild Hall for two chemistry classes.

Levin reports to the office of Maj. Jonny Hoang, a senior instructor of chemistry and Levin s adviser for this two-hour independent study class.

This is a required course for Levin and his material sciences major. He is working on a project that studies carbon fibers and the possibilities for making them stronger and less expensive by adding new elements into the manufacturing process.

He has been working on this project since last summer and hopes to be finished in the coming weeks. He, along with four other classmates who are working on various aspects of the project, will present their findings at a conference at the Academy on Wednesday and another in Washington this spring.

Hoang, a 2007 graduate of the Academy, is impressed with the work Levin has performed on this project, which Hoang introduced upon arrival at the Academy as an instructor three years ago.

"He s a lot smarter than I was at his age, far and away, I can tell you that," Hoang said. "Four years ago, he was playing junior hockey in Texas [Odessa of the North American Hockey League] and now he is working on stuff that could change the military landscape and have a profound effect on the Air Force."

Levin remains in Fairchild Hall for another class, this one a lecture on polymer chemistry. It s another required class for his major.

Levin is an honor officer for Squadron 26. Each cadet at the Academy must have a job, and Levin became an honor officer this year on the recommendation of one of his hockey teammates.

Says Levin: "We basically mentor and guide other cadets through that process. There s a lot more to it that would take way longer to get into but we basically meet every day and go over what we did the past week, what we can do and we get an outlook moving forward with how we want to approach things and the angles we want to take."

Levin has been going hard for four hours, and it is time to get some fuel for the rest of his day. He, along with the rest of the roughly 4,000 cadets on campus, descend on Mitchell Hall for lunch -- all at the same time.

Normally, the cadets assemble by squadron (approximately 100 cadets each) on The Terazzo and march to the mess hall. On Wednesday, the quad is covered with snow and the afternoon formation is canceled.

Instead, the cadets stream into the mess hall in groups and report to the tables assigned to their squadron. After being called to attention, they sit down to eat. All 4,000 cadets are served simultaneously as hotel pans are placed on each table with the hot components of the meal inside. It is turkey burgers and baked beans on Wednesday. The cadets eat quickly, catching up with squad mates and friends at nearby tables. A low hum fills the cavernous hall, which has floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. Again, the spectacular vista provided seemingly goes unnoticed.

After catching up with members of his squadron at lunch, Levin returns to his dorm room at Sijan Hall and he has 90 minutes before he reports to hockey practice. Some days, he will study at his desk, which faces a concrete wall. Other days, he will go to the library.

A nap, while attractive, is out of the question; as is looking out the window and enjoying Mother Nature.

"There is always something I can be doing," he says with a rueful laugh. Instead, he hits the books, working on something for one of the six classes he is carrying this semester.

Levin is in his element once he enters Cadet Field House, which includes AFA Cadet Ice Arena.

This is where he is happiest during his long days. The team practices three days a week and generally plays on Friday and Saturday. They are off on Sundays and Tuesdays.

He reports early to get treatment from one of the trainers and then lingers with teammates in the state-of-the-art dressing room until the coach s meeting at 2:45 p.m.

As Air Force coach Frank Serratore strides to the middle of the room, the TV is silenced, and all eyes focus on him. He tells the team to enjoy all the hoopla surrounding the rivalry games this weekend and the historic outdoor game Monday, but to remember that work must be done Wednesday and Thursday if they want to get positive results.

Levin and his teammates, sitting in their stalls, stare intently as the assistants break down power-play and defensive-zone tendencies in a 20-minute video presentation that follows.

After a stretching session, the team hits the ice for practice, which runs a bit more than an hour. Levin says this particular session is one of the most spirited of the season and nobody is in a rush to leave the ice surface -- not even an under-the-weather Levin, who is fighting a cold and has used Dayquil as a crutch to help him through the day.

"I enjoy being down here," Levin said. "I wouldn t want to be doing homework or marching or doing other stuff. I d rather be down here with the team enjoying what I like to do."

Levin has nine points (three goals, six assists) in 28 games, but his value to the team is not measured by numbers.

"He s not much of a talker, but he leads by example," Serratore said. "He s probably our best all-around player. His greatest strength, as a player, is he doesn t really have a weakness. He does everything better than average."

Eventually the players straggle off the ice, change and go for a short workout in the brand-new weight room down the hall.

After a quick meal in the players lounge, provided on this day to hasten their return to the dormitories to study and avoid an extra trip to the mess hall for dinner, the players start to leave, worn out from their exertions on the ice and in the weight room.

Levin has been going for 12 hours, but his day is not close to being finished. A study group to work on material from Levin s Aeronautical Engineering class is next on the agenda.

The post-practice studying could last until 11 p.m., or later, Levin says. There are some nights when sleep does not come early or last long.

Yet, there are few complaints.

Levin has become used to the grind, to missing some of the smaller details -- like the view from his room -- in favor for the bigger picture of becoming a commissioned officer in the Air Force. Cadet life is no longer something he merely endures; it has become who he is.

"I mean, it s not easy," he says, admitting he sometimes hides his frustrations behind a smile. "They ask a lot from us, and you have to be able to step up and perform to be here."
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