“I remember breaking down on the bench and having to wipe tears out of my eyes because I couldn’t believe we were going to win a championship,” says Air Force hockey coach Frank Serratore, one of the toughest men in the business. Those tears of joy flowed during one of the biggest moments in the program’s history. On that night in 2007, the Falcons defeated rival Army 6-1 to claim their first Atlantic Hockey tournament championship.
Serratore’s passion for his sport is contagious. His teams reflect that passion with a hard-nosed determination and tireless work ethic. That victory over Army marked the arrival of Air Force Academy hockey. It had become an elite team, but man, it took years of work to get there.
Serratore, now 59, turned down a job as assistant coach of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins in 1997 to take over at the Air Force Academy, where the hockey team had struggled for years. At the time, the academy accepted only recent American-born high school graduates. That made it difficult to compete against the country’s best college hockey teams, which recruited older, more experienced players from the U.S., Canada and Europe.
With the blessing of the academy’s leadership, Serratore reached out to find better players. The concern was: Would 20-year-old junior hockey players who had been away from school be prepared to handle the rigors of the academics at the academy?
“What [academy leadership] found was that with the added maturity level, the players were able to overcome that,” Serratore says. “And for the majority of the years I have been here, the hockey team has been Top 5 academically among the athletic teams.”
Now in his 20th season at Air Force, Serratore is atop his game. His teams have won five conference championships and qualified for the 16-team NCAA Tournament five of the last 10 years. He entered the season with a 329-310-71 record, and Air Force is again battling for the AHC title.
“Frank turned the team around,” says Dave Toller, assistant athletic director of media relations, who has chronicled the journey. “The difference is, no matter who they play, they think they can win.”
Air Force hockey practices are a flurry of movement. Skates slash the ice, and the boards rumble with the sounds of physical play. Serratore watches with a keen eye. Do your job; work hard; everything will be cool. Screw up, and you’ll hear about it immediately. Those are the rules at AFA hockey. But at the end of the day, Serratore believes in his players.
“He is extremely intense and competitive,” says AFA senior forward A.J. Reid. “He’s an intense guy on the ice. But away from hockey, he’s really a caring person. He enjoys being with the guys, and he’s going to take care of you.”
Beyond the grit and game-day focus, Serratore has a fetching sense of humor. Toller and longtime athletic trainer Erik Marsh insist that most of Serratore’s funny moments are unfit for print, but they’ll never forget the 2016 press conference when Serratore wore a bright purple Minnesota Vikings pullover and launched into five minutes of comedy gold after his beloved Vikes exited the playoffs on a short but missed field goal.
He once ribbed the late sportscaster Lee Douglas—on air—for reading from the teleprompter on a KOAA TV sports show.
“So, like, you read everything on here?” Serratore asked.
“Well, mostly, yes,” Douglas replied.
“I thought you were, like, a brilliantly creative guy,” Serratore said. “I mean, I’m sitting here and looking—it’s telling him exactly what to say. I’ll tell you what, you’re losing some points with me, brother. And I have to shoot from the hip?”
Serratore grew up in small-town northern Minnesota. Football and hockey were his preferred sports, but he eventually caught the hockey bug and became a great goaltender. He lettered four years in college hockey at Western Michigan University and Bimidji State University while majoring in education, mainly because he wanted to coach.
“I still haven’t used my teaching degree, but it proved to be a pretty good move,” he says.
Serratore is highly respected in the hockey world. He could have explored other coaching opportunities, but he says he’s happy in Colorado Springs, where he and his wife, Carol, raised four children.
“A lot of guys go through this coaching profession and never establish an identity,” Serratore says. “They just bounce from job to job. To me, it’s kind of special to be a part of something. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished here, and the job isn’t done. We still aspire to bring this program to greater heights.”