Landeskog takes off at Air Force Academy for Avalanche game against Kings

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  • By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
  • Columnist

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Gabriel Landeskog is used to flying up the wing as a forward for the Colorado Avalanche. But flying an F-22? A single-seat, twin-engine stealth fighter plane capable of going twice the speed of sound?

"Is it going to make me nauseous?" Landeskog asks.

"I don't know," says Matt Pulver, a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the captain of the Air Force men's hockey team.

It's Jan. 13, and Landeskog is pretending to be a cadet for a day ahead of the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series between the Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings at Falcon Stadium on Feb. 15 (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN360, TVAS2).

He's wearing a standard-issue green flight suit, complete with a nametag and the academy insignia, and sitting in Classroom 2H4 at Fairchild Hall, a main academic building.

Of course, he will be flying in a simulator, not the real thing. Still, his airspeed and stomach will be measured the same way: in knots.

He puts on a virtual reality headset and takes the controls. As he starts to soar, he lets out an "ooh," an "aah" and a laugh. 

"This is what it feels like?" he asks.

"Yep," says Lt. Col. Brian McKay, his instructor. "Only when we're actually flying, we're pulling Gs. That's the one thing you don't get to do is feel the actual Gs here."

Landeskog flies over Interstate 25. McKay tells Landeskog to look to his right. There's Pikes Peak. There's the Air Force Academy.

"There's the stadium," McKay says. "Right there to the …"

"Where?" Landeskog asks.

"Right down here."

Landeskog points as if it were outside the canopy of the cockpit. At that moment, he could imagine what it would be like for a pilot in the flyover on game day, looking down at thousands of fans in the stadium on the east side of the Rampart Range of the Rocky Mountains.

By the end of the afternoon -- after sitting in the cockpit of a real plane, trying the simulator, skating with the hockey team and leaping from a 10-meter platform into a pool as if he were going through water survival training -- he could imagine what it would be like to be a cadet.

It will make the game that more meaningful.

This won't be just another regular-season game. This won't be just another outdoor game. This will be the second outdoor game at a military academy, after the 2018 NHL Stadium Series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals at the U.S. Naval Academy's Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.

This will be a special event at a special place with special people.

"I'm super excited to come back," Landeskog says.

* * * * *

After practicing with the Avalanche in the morning, Landeskog drives down I-25 to Colorado Springs, about 80 miles south of Denver. If only he could fly.

When he arrives at the academy, he goes straight to the 557th Flying Training Squadron. Not every cadet tries to be a pilot, but those who do start here. They learn the basics and take up to 14 flights in a T-53, a two-seat, single-propeller plane with a six-cylinder engine, hoping to go to pilot training after graduation.

"We're going to start with this before we pop them into jet aircraft with ejection seats," says Maj. Art Dulin, an instructor pilot who became an Avalanche fan while attending the academy from 2000-04. "But that's coming."

If Landeskog were an actual cadet, he would attend a mass briefing to go over flight conditions, sit down with his instructor pilot individually to go over the mission plan, and head to the operations desk for one more briefing. Then he'd get the keys and head to the plane. He'd sit in the left seat; the instructor pilot would sit in the right (with his or her own set of controls). They'd fly for about 90 minutes to practice maneuvers.

Alas, Landeskog is not an actual cadet, which is clear the moment he emerges in his flight suit.

"Ready to rock," he says, looking cool with his collar popped up.

"We're going to do this, though," Dulin says, putting Landeskog's collar down so he wears the uniform properly. "There you go. Looking good."

"I'm learning."

It's too windy to go up today. So Landeskog walks to a hanger and sits in a T-53 with Pulver, who has taken nine or 10 flights in this type of aircraft. Pulver shows Landeskog the control stick, throttle and fuel gauge. He shows him the attitude and altitude.

After a while, Landeskog feels comfortable enough to touch the controls, trying them out, seeing which flaps they move.
"Oh, I can play with these?" he asks. "I was, like, pretty hesitant to play with these. So, I can pull this?"

"Yeah," Pulver says. "See in the back there? It's moving on the right side."

"Oh!" Landeskog says with a laugh. "So, if I go like that, does that slow the plane down?"

"Does it ... No. No, it doesn't slow the plane down."

"What does that do?"

"It turns. It turns the plane."

Maybe Landeskog might be better off as a passenger on the Avalanche charter.

"Yeah, man," Landeskog says. "This is so foreign to me. I sit in the back of the plane. I play cards. That's what I do. I'll watch a movie or something."

* * * * *
Landeskog and Pulver climb out of the plane and walk across the north ramp of the airfield, then head to the Cadet Area, the main campus.

The academy swore in its first cadets in 1955, moved to this location in 1958 and graduated its first class in 1959. It is a big, beautiful place, 18,455 acres and 7,258 feet above sea level where the mountains start their descent to the plains. The campus buildings have a modern style that evokes aircraft and flight.

Landeskog and Pulver talk about life as a cadet. There isn't time to go over everything -- how each cadet balances academics, athletics and military training while abiding by an honor code. But Landeskog gets a taste of little things. No facial hair. No hands in pockets. Leave open the door to your room, because it will be checked to make sure it's in order.

"They go through a pretty tough process, and it's a hard schedule they're on," Landeskog says. "It takes a lot of discipline and hard work."

Landeskog and Pulver arrive at the simulator and meet McKay, a 2000 graduate who oversees airmanship programs here. This simulator facility is about 18 months old. Each cadet is now required to take an introductory course in aviation fundamentals whether he or she wants to be a pilot or not.

McKay, a St. Louis Blues fan and youth hockey coach, compares it to USA Hockey's American Development Model. It is a learn-to-fly program like the ADM is a learn-to-play program, removing barriers to entry, exposing cadets to flying and making it fun. Some discover they like flying more than they thought and pursue it as a career. Others gain a better understanding and appreciation of the main mission of the Air Force.

"The first thing you've got to do is learn to skate, so you've got to get yourself out onto the ice, and you're going to fall the first time," McKay says. "Most people can't fly the first time. A lot of people wind up crashing the sim, and that's OK. That's why we have a simulator.

"We teach them straight and level flight, which sounds very, very basic, but it's just like trying to stand on skates. It's easy once you've done it but learning to do that is a challenge."

First, Landeskog looks around at the controls of the F-22.

"What about all these buttons here?" he asks.

"You don't have to worry about any of those," McKay says. "They're not going to do much in this [simulation]. We don't have the guns or the missiles on."

Thank goodness.

Landeskog zooms into straight and level flight. It's like he's a kid pushing a chair around the ice, but he doesn't fall.

"How am I doing so far?" he asks. 

"So far, so good, right?" McKay says. "You haven't crashed, so I'll take that."

Landeskog pulls back on the stick, does a loop, comes out of it at 700 knots and comments on how nauseating it would be in real life. He makes sound effects like a kid playing a video game. 

He realizes it is not a video game.

"This is scary," he says. "This is scary [stuff], pardon my language."

"But it's fun," McKay says.

"It is fun."

Landeskog learns cadets usually fly in the simulator for about 50 minutes at a time.

"Fifty?" he asks.

"Yeah," McKay says. 

"Oh, I'd need some Dramamine for that."

When Landeskog tries to land, he doesn't nosedive. But let's just say landing is harder than it looks. This is like trying to scrape to a stop for the first time when you're learning how to skate. McKay consoles him, explaining it usually takes cadets 40 tries over four flights to make their first landing in a T-53.

"Wow," Landeskog says. "I don't know how you hit that runway or how you're supposed to."

* * * * *

Landeskog is more comfortable at Cadet Ice Arena, a 2,502-seat rink in the Cadet Field House sports complex. He's actually skated here before, when the Avalanche played an intrasquad game at the academy before his rookie season in 2011-12. He meets a couple of young fans in Avalanche jerseys on the way in.

Air Force not only has Division I men's hockey, it has a strong program. Despite the challenge of finding players who fit the criteria -- U.S. citizens who can handle the demands of being a cadet on top of hockey and make a military commitment of at least five years -- the Falcons have made the NCAA tournament seven times in the past 13 seasons and the Elite Eight three times.

"They're doing the military training, they're doing a rigorous world-class academic program and then they're competing at the Division I level," says Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, a 1985 graduate who became a fighter pilot and is now superintendent. "It's impressive to watch them."

Frank Serratore, who has coached Air Force since 1997, calls it a once-in-a-career opportunity to have the Stadium Series at the academy. Air Force will play crosstown rival Colorado College on the same ice in the Faceoff at Falcon Stadium on Feb. 17.

"This is bigger than just the hockey program," Serratore says. "This is an opportunity to showcase the Air Force Academy, the city of Colorado Springs. What a great event for the city."

Landeskog takes off his flight suit and dresses with the players, putting on warm-up pants and his own No. 92 Air Force jersey at his own locker. He's from Stockholm, Sweden, and 27 years old. But he's the most all-American Swede you'll ever meet and relates well to cadets from across the United States in their late teens and early 20s. While he asks them about their life, they ask him about his.

"It's not every day a superstar comes in your locker room," Pulver says. "I think guys like to see what he does, like, how he tapes his stick, ties his skates, you know? I know that's awesome. I know the guys really like that.

"I mean, he went around and shook everybody's hand. Can't say enough. What an unbelievable guy."

Landeskog is not allowed to practice with the team because of NCAA rules. So, he takes a few twirls and shoots a few pucks with the players beforehand, then watches practice from the bench until he must leave for his last stop. Before he goes, he signs a stick. He leaves it and his gloves in Pulver's locker for him to find later.

"It was great to have him here," Pulver says. "Hopefully he learned a little bit about what we go through, so I mean, hopefully the game means a little more."

* * * * *

Landeskog is led through the athletic complex in the late afternoon, the time of day when it buzzes with cadets practicing all kinds of sports. Each cadet competes at the Division I, club or intramural level.

"No exceptions," Silveria says. "I mean, everybody is an athlete. All of them have to take the physical fitness test each semester. All of them have to take the physical fitness test to enter and to graduate. Everybody is an athlete, because we believe in the competitiveness that you build in competing all the time, in pushing yourself, teamwork, learning about yourself, physical courage."

Each cadet must pass aquatics, which includes swimming and water survival classes. A cadet can start water survival training by jumping from the 10-, 7.5- or 5-meter platform into the pool at Cadet Natatorium and swimming under a bulkhead. The higher the platform, the more points he or she earns toward passing the class.

Landeskog strips to shorts and climbs to the top of the 10-meter platform while divers do flips and swimmers do laps. He looks down.

A long way down.

This is not virtual reality. This is not a simulation. This is the real thing. But just like that, he runs and jumps, arms and legs flailing, and crashes into the water.

He survives.

"I mean, I first get up there, and it looks really high," Landeskog says. "And then you get up to the edge, it looks even higher. And then I just said, 'Nope. Counting down from three, and then I'm going.' And I just went for it. And then once you're in the air, it's too late anyways.

"It probably wasn't the most [graceful] jump you've ever seen, but I got it done."

Consider this his graduation.

He receives an honorary honorable discharge, turning in the flight suit but keeping the patches as souvenirs. He will remember this experience, especially when playing for the Avalanche against the Kings at Falcon Stadium, with Silveria, McKay, Dulin, Pulver and so many others in the crowd.

"I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to be a cadet for a day," Landeskog says. "It's been a lot of fun. It just makes me more excited to come back and see some of the familiar faces at our outdoor game again."