When Jim Barry, a native of ice hockey hotbed Boston, walked into Dahlgren Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis three years ago, it was love at first sight.
"Walking up those stairs at Dahlgren Hall and seeing the sea plane hanging from the rafters just thrilled me," said Barry, who is in his third year as coach of Navy's ice hockey club team. "It's the most beautiful arena I've ever seen.
"Part of the thrill of Dahlgren is the ambience of the arena itself."
The other part these days is the hockey team, which senior tri-captain Steve Jennings (class of '91) says has created "hockey fever" in the halls.
Jennings, who was born 20 miles south of Boston, started skating as soon as he could walk at age 2 and played on his first organized team at 6.
He has watched the Navy program go from the outhouse to the penthouse under the guidance of Barry.
"When I was a plebe, it was almost a chore to play a game on Saturdays at Dahlgren because there was almost no one there, but now we draw 500 to 700 fans for games, and we draw off the energy of the crowd," said Jennings, who credits Barry for turning the program around.
"Coach Barry really cares and is a solid, great coach who has this program the talk of the academy. Years ago as a plebe, I dreaded going to practice, but now I can't wait for class to end so I can get out on the ice, hit a couple people, move the puck around. I just love it, it's such a great atmosphere in the locker room."
Barry coached a junior college team in the Boston area in the mid-1970s before giving real estate a try in 1980. By 1988, he got the bug to get back into coaching and took a friend's advice to come down to Annapolis and take a look.
It didn't take Barry long to decide Navy was where he wanted to be and he took over its hockey team in 1988. Last year, he landed a position on the faculty as an economics teacher, and this year, he's teaching economics and working at the academic counseling center in addition to coaching his first love, hockey.
"It's great to be back working with kids and especially here at the academy where the kids are special," said the soft-spoken father of five, ages 5 to 22.
"I started skating at the age of 2 back in Boston where hockey is a way of life."
Barry skated in high school and later at Boston College before getting into coaching and really enjoying it from the sidelines. He takes pride in the growth of Navy's program.
"It's really catching on at Navy," said Barry, who has 70 Middies in the program with an A and B team. When Steve Gordon started the program more than 10 years ago, they had a JV B team then, too.
"The kids are so hungry to play that the B team is out on the ice 5:30 a.m. each day, which is something when you consider the schedule these kids have at the academy. They're also talking about starting an intramural program second semester, even selling hockey equipment and sweat shirts in the Mids' store."
Last weekend when the Middies, who were 14-8-1 a year ago finishing 12th in the nation in club hockey, opened with a 10-1 romp over Georgetown and a 3-3 tie with the University of Penn, the supply store sold out of Navy ice hockey sweat shirts.
Another shipment was on the way hopefully in time for yesterday's game against Lehigh and today's 1 p.m. contest against the University of Maryland.
"They're still arguing over the design for the Steve Jennings T-shirt," joked Jennings. "When I first came down here and you said you played hockey, people looked at me as if I had two arms coming out of my forehead.
"But it's a whole different ballgame now."
The team's exciting play, orchestrated by Barry's coaching, has gotten the fans revved up. The Middies play in the Northeast Conference, which consists of Lehigh, Penn, Georgetown, Maryland, Rhode Island, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Mass.) and West Chester (Pa.).
Only the top 10 club teams qualify for the national tournament in Tempe, Ariz., in February. Depending on its overall record, Navy could be pitted against a neighboring school with that winner going against a New England team for the right to go on to the nationals.
Barry believes this year's edition is capable of advancing to the nationals.
"This is a better team than the one we had last year," said Barry. "We had to cut five veterans off last year's team, so we are five players better than last year."
The likes of Tim Fetsch and Jake Skala can in the true hockey lingo of Jennings "put the biscuit in the basket" and the very physical line of Bowie's John Quinlan, Steve Roberto and Adam O'Neill wreak havoc on the ice for opponents.
Veteran John Hetland returns to anchor the defense, which boasts a couple of outstanding plebes in Rob Dougherty and Billy Murphy. Navy also is strong in the goal with Rich Doyle and Bob Pothier and has good size with the addition of three former Navy football players in Jeff Fogarty, Bob Braun and Vince Vertin.