Photo by Rena Laverty
Not much had been normal in 2020 – not in hockey and certainly not across the world. Seasons were pushed back, games were canceled and teams were mandated to stay off the ice for weeks at a time. But in a year with an ever-changing schedule, one added road-trip marked a period of normalcy for Liam Gilmartin.
The Gilmartin family is synonymous with military. Liam’s mom and dad both put in 25-plus years of service and his dad played college hockey at West Point. His older brother, Conner, enlisted in the Coast Guard and was part of the Army Officer Cadet School. So, when Liam found out he was going to Colorado Springs to play Air Force Academy, he knew it would be special.
“That trip was great. I was honored to go to that campus, that place is beautiful,” Gilmartin recalled about the December trip. “And I actually have a couple family members that are in the Air Force. I have a cousin and uncle and probably more that I just don't even know about.”
And what’s more normal than a little friendly trash-talking before a game?
“My brother's best friend is in the Air Force, and he was trying to give me chirps before the game,” said Gilmartin. “I didn't say anything because you’ve got to respect them for what they do and what they put on the line, but it was funny.”
Gilmartin and his Under-18 teammates got the last laugh with a pair of wins over the Falcons, the team’s first games against NCAA Division I competition.
“It was just nice just getting on the road again. I think all the boys were so excited to fly, just feel like we were back in normal times. It was unreal.”
The Falls Church, Virginia, native, now in his second year with USA Hockey’s National Team Development program, is only the second NTDP player in the program’s history to call Virginia home. While his love for hockey was built and grew in Old Dominion, it was in the Midwest where Gilmartin really honed his skills.
At 14 years old, the forward moved to Minnesota to suit up for the renown Shattuck St. Mary’s program. Gilmartin racked up an astounding 147 points (66g-81a) in just 106 games played across his two seasons for SSM. He said his time in Minnesota was indispensable in making him the player he is today.
“I think playing at Shattuck was a huge part of my development. I don't think I'd be the player who I am today if I didn't go to Shattuck, if I'm being honest,” he said. “I think they kind of threw me in the lake of all the big fishes. I just think Shattuck really set me up well for future.”
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His future started by moving a bit southeast for his Under-17 season at the NTDP, a place that had always been a target for Liam growing up. In a blur of a rookie year, it was the international scene that stuck out the most for Gilmartin as his favorite moment.
“It's easily just winning Four Nations, it's not even close. The heater was unreal,” Gilmartin said, speaking of the U17s’ 10-game win streak last year. “That was a great, great moment, but nothing was being better than beating Russia on their ice, in their own barn.”
The offseason between players’ U17 and U18 year is one of the biggest times of growth and improvement during the two years in Plymouth. Strength is built in the gym and skills are honed on the ice in training sessions. Gilmartin had a few specific areas that he thought would help him and his team on the ice.
“You can never be too fast and your shot can never be too hard. I kind of just worked on those two things, catch and release because every shot that goes in is off the pass. So just catch and release and using my speed and trying to get faster and stronger on my feet. I think I did a pretty decent job this summer.”
The work has shown up on the ice for Gilmartin in the first half of the season. The winger has totaled 14 points (4g-10a) in 23 games thus far, nearly matching his 2019-20 point total in half as many games. And the skill and speed improvements were put on display with a highlight-reel goal in a December win over the Youngstown Phantoms.
“Basically, we're just kind of in the D-zone and the defenseman shot it and I saw it took a weird bounce right to Willy [Jeremy Wilmer],” Gilmartin explained, remembering the goal. “So I just sent it out of the zone because he had the puck and he always finds your tape and it got on mine. I was going down on the break. I was like, all right, let's shoot this five-hole because, I mean, the last two goals went there. I just faked the five-hole instead, I wasn’t even thinking. I just faked it and went backhand and it ended up working out. It's nice when you score those.”
On a team level, Gilmartin says that first-year head coach Dan Muse has done a great job in improving the little areas and finer details to win games. The entire roster has bought in to the same ultimate goal and that starts in the defensive end.
“We want to win a [U18 World] championship. And I think the biggest thing is we're holding teams down to lower scores, but we're still putting up the same numbers. Defensively, Coach Muse really focuses on a lot more. You can't win a 2-1 hockey game if you let in five goals. I just think we're all supporting everyone else better in the D-zone and then on offense, we just go to work.”
Ultimately, playing hockey is normal for Gilmartin. As is serving his country. For now, Liam prefers to complete his national duties on the ice.
“Just being with the boys, the environment. That piece is probably my favorite thing in the world, honestly. Just playing for one another and especially playing for the logo on the chest, it's huge. Every day you’ve got to take it seriously. You can joke around and everything, but you all know the mission at the end of the day.”