By Dave Toller
Few people can actually say they have had a dream come true. Greg Flynn has had two: the opportunity to serve the country he loves and the chance to play professionally in the sport he loves.
A 2009 graduate of the Air Force Academy, Flynn is a second lieutenant stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base, just outside Boston.
By day, he is a contract manager – an officer diligently working on market research, negotiating contracts and sending them forward through the Air Force process.
By night, he puts on the No. 37 sweater as a rookie defenseman with the Lowell Devils of the American Hockey League. A fiercely competitive defenseman with a razor’s edge, he goes toe-to-toe with players who will soon be, or have been, in the National Hockey League.
“Playing professional hockey is an unbelievable opportunity, but I am an officer in the Air Force and very proud of that,” Flynn said. “I cannot thank everyone involved in the process enough. Everyone has been so supportive and for that I am eternally grateful. To my coaches at the Academy who taught me to play at the highest level, my commanders here at Hanscom who have given me this opportunity and the Lowell administration who took a chance on an unknown, a heartfelt thank you.”
Flynn was a 2009 All-American at the Academy, where he was the nation’s top scoring defenseman. His slap shot made him a threat on every power play. But it was his tenacious style of play that gave Air Force a toughness it needed to win three straight championships.
In March 2009, Flynn assisted on both goals to help lead Air Force to a 2-0 win over third-ranked Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. Air Force reached the Elite Eight for the first time in school history and posted a school-record 28 wins.
“Greg Flynn came to us as blue-collar defenseman and he willed his way to becoming the leading scoring defenseman in the nation,” Air Force coach Frank Serratore said. “He started out as a big, rugged defender whose work ethic and intensity enabled him to become the complete package. He came to us as a two-tool player and developed into a five-tool player. He has great balance to his game. He went from being a player who couldn’t play on a mediocre Air Force team to being an All-American on a team that nearly made the Frozen Four.”
Flynn’s work ethic carried over into the classroom as well as he was a three-time academic all-conference selection. Flynn graduated from the Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in management and was commissioned a second lieutenant. After taking 60 days of leave, he spent five weeks at contracting school at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio and started his first assignment at Hanscom. He practiced with the Devils for three weeks before going to the Air and Space Basic Course, an entry-level module for all new lieutenants at Maxwell AFB, Ala.
Upon returning to Hanscom in early December, Flynn’s dream of playing professional hockey became a reality. He signed an amateur tryout contract and first practiced with the Devils, the top minor league affiliate of the New Jersey Devils, Dec. 8. His first game came on the road at Manchester, N.H., Dec. 19.
“I hadn’t felt nerves like that in a long, long time,” Flynn said. “Not even my first college game. I think the biggest reason is that I had not played a game since April against Vermont in the NCAA Tournament. Then once the game started and I played my first shift, it all went away and I was just playing hockey again.
In his third career game, again at Manchester, Flynn had four shots on goal, the third most on the team. As of Jan. 22, 2010, Flynn played in six games and has 12 shots on goal. He earned his first plus as a professional in a 3-2 loss to Syracuse on Jan. 14, a game in which he tied his professional career high of four shots on goal.
“From the time I was a kid, I always dreamed of playing in the NHL,” Flynn said. “I grew up a North Stars fan and always thought to myself, ‘hopefully that is me one day’. I think every kid that plays a sport when they are young, dreams of playing that sport professionally.”
Flynn started playing hockey when he was seven. Not long after, his father built a rink on the side of their home in Lino Lakes, Minn. Flynn, and his two younger brothers: Ryan, a senior forward at Minnesota and a Nashville Predators draft choice; and Jake, a junior defenseman at Centennial High School, had the pleasure of playing right in their own backyard, just a few miles north of Minneapolis.
A two-time all-conference and an honorable mention all-state selection at Centennial High School, Flynn was recruited by former Air Force assistant coach Joe Doyle. Flynn committed to the Air Force Academy while still in high school and then played one year of junior hockey for the Billings Bulls of the North American Hockey League.
The freshman year at a service academy is certainly challenging, but for Flynn the hockey season was difficult as well. He did not play in the first half of the season. His first game came on Dec. 31, 2005 against RIT. From that point on, he missed just three games in three-and-a half years.
“Hockey was the only thing I was good at and I was failing at that,” Flynn said. “That was the low point of my hockey career. I worked as hard as I possibly could and I felt like my work ethic is what got me through and helped me throughout my career.”
Air Force was 11-20-1 his freshman year, but little did he know at the time that a championship foundation was being built. Air Force won three straight league Atlantic Hockey championships, played in three NCAA Tournaments and reached the Elite Eight his senior year.
“After my freshman year, if someone said ‘do you think you’ll ever play in the NCAA Tournament’ I would have said ‘absolutely not’,” Flynn said. “Going to the NCAA tournament my sophomore year and playing against my brother was a dream come true. After that I thought, ‘that was cool’, but I don’t know if it will happen again. Then to go back and go a little farther every year was awesome.”
Similar to his days as a cadet, Flynn must find the balance between his Air Force career and athletics and put in the commitment necessary to succeed at both. Flynn wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and gets to the office by 6:30. First and foremost, he works a full duty day. After a couple of hours in the office, he leaves for Lowell for the Devils’ practice (about 15 minutes away) in the late morning and then returns to Hanscom to complete his day into the early evening.
“The day is a little like playing at the Academy, when I had class and then practice and back to the dorms at about 7 p.m.,” Flynn said. “The difference is that now I don’t have homework.”
Flynn has played in five games with the Devils and has seven shots on goal. Playing at the highest level of minor league hockey, Flynn knows he still has a long way to go before reaching the NHL.
“The biggest thing I need to do is to adjust to the speed of the game,” Flynn said. “I need to improve on the little things of the game, being in the right place all the time and trying to be a step ahead of the game. The guys in this league are future NHL players. They know exactly where they need to be and what they are doing all the time. I have a lot to learn on the hockey side, but I know that my priority is the Air Force, and I take a lot of pride in that.”
The Department of Defense policy is that an active-duty service member pursuing professional sports must serve a minimum 24 months (Flynn’s 24 months extends through May 2011). At that point, an individual can apply for early release. Applications are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Several conditions must be met, including the individual being assigned to reserve unit and the situation having potential recruiting or public affairs benefits for the Air Force.
“He’s a big, tough, durable defenseman who can also make things happen when the puck is on his stick,” Serratore said. “His greatest strength as a pro is that he doesn’t have a weakness. That makes him real enticing as a pro. The way he works, and his intensity, I would not bet against this guy in anything he wanted to do.”
From the time the seven-year old first laced up the skates, to a college All-American, a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and now a professional hockey player, Greg Flynn truly is living the dream.