Cross-checked: Nellis captain tells his hockey story

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Siuta B. Ika
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
In an ice rink about 2,600 miles from the ones he used to play in, Johnny Lupo finds himself in a familiar position -- staring down a goalie during an overtime shootout of a hockey game.

As he starts his course toward the net, the goalie takes his stance and tries to keep his eyes on the puck amid Lupo's weaving skates and stick handling. Little does the goalie know, he never had a chance.

Lupo scores with ease and then gazes into the crowd of about 15 people -- an average turnout for the Wednesday night men's league at the Fiesta Rancho Casino in Las Vegas, but a far cry from the thousands of spectators Lupo used to play in front of in his hometown of Wallingford, Connecticut. Lupo can only watch though as his team's goalie gives up three consecutive goals and teammates are unable to match their opposition's total, rendering his lone goal meaningless.

Although the game's participants may have only been playing out of their love for the game, Lupo's competitive nature ensures he will take the loss hard. For Lupo, a U.S. Air Force captain and the commander of the 99th Force Support Squadron Military Personnel Flight, just being back in his element is a win after an almost two-year hiatus due to a permanent change of station and deployment.

"I started playing hockey when I was three years old, so I joke with people and say I can skate better than I can walk," Lupo said. "I have a fake hip, missing front tooth and my finger got cut off all while I was playing ... But I wouldn't trade any of that if it meant I had to give up the game, because it has 100 percent shaped who I am today."

Almost 10 years ago, Lupo reached a critical juncture in his young life and had to decide whether he would chase a dream of playing professional hockey or focus on a career in the military. After a long heart-to-heart talk with his father, Lupo made a decision that would affect his foreseeable future.

"Everybody has a dream about going to the show, the NHL, but with everything that can happen, the likelihood of making it is slim, so I decided to go into the military," Lupo said. "I went to Norwich University and the hockey program wasn't open to the military students, so it was a big decision for me to not play in college."

Although Lupo would star for four years on the school's rugby team and two years on the lacrosse team, he yearned to return to the ice.

"Pretty much my whole life was about hockey. I was either in the gym or on the ice," Lupo said. "I went to a private high school and that was the whole reason I went to that school -- to play hockey -- and I played with and against guys that went to pretty high levels, including Jon Quick [goalie for the NHL's L.A. Kings]."

While attending Norwich, Lupo would meet his future wife, who jokes about hockey still being the most important thing in her husband's life.

"Johnny always tells people, 'I love hockey so much I married a Canadian woman,'" said Jody-Lynn Lupo with a laugh. "We currently don't have any kids, but I know when we do, they will have no choice but to play hockey -- even if it's a girl, because his sister played hockey in college."

Now entrenched at Nellis Air Force Base, Lupo has latched on to two local hockey teams, which has been a welcome surprise for him.

"There are so few people that are all about hockey so just to be around a group of guys that love it is very refreshing to me," Lupo said. "It's not uncommon for every single town in Connecticut to have a rink, so when I started moving around for the military and there's only like two or three rinks in a whole state, it's really weird, so the fact that I can play hockey in Las Vegas is awesome."

As the MPF commander, Lupo is charged with overseeing Airmen who are responsible for providing personnel support and services to thousands of military personnel, their dependents, civil servants and retirees located at Nellis and throughout the Las Vegas area. This responsibility requires teamwork, work ethic and respect -- all values hockey ingrained in him as a child.

"The number one thing hockey taught me is teamwork. An individual is on the ice for about 40 seconds, but you have a 60-minute game, so teams are rolling three, four rotations of people on the ice for 30 to 40 seconds at a time, so you have to rely on everybody to be giving maximum effort at all times," Lupo said. "Another thing is 100 percent work ethic, because you got to get up sometimes at five in the morning to get on the ice -- the business aspect of it that you have to put down fun sometimes to better yourself. Sportsmanship, respect is also something you learn, because at the highest levels, you're playing with pretty much the same group of guys."

Working out to get better on the ice also resulted in Lupo finding another infatuation -- fitness.

"Working out now is one of the biggest things in my life and hockey definitely built the foundation," Lupo said. "I run a lot and work out five to six times a week and mix in Crossfit with traditional weight lifting."

Although the men's league he plays in now offers a stark contrast in competition he grew up playing against, Lupo said he relishes every moment out on the ice.

"Just to be out there is great," Lupo said. "I joke with people and tell them I'm the worst American athlete ever because the only sports I've ever played in my life are hockey, lacrosse and rugby. But hockey was my first true love and as long as I can put the boots on and still skate, I'll be out there."