WILMINGTON, Mass. — Zach McKelvie's path to pro hockey has been a bit longer and more circuitous than the average prospect.
The defenseman from St. Paul, Minn. is the oldest participant in this week's Bruins rookie camp. At 26, he's got more than eight years on fellow prospect Alexander Khokhlachev, who celebrated his 18th birthday the same day that camp opened on Friday.
"I'm probably the oldest rookie ever," McKelvie joked after Saturday's second day of workouts at Ristuccia Arena.
But McKelvie has a good reason for his late start. He's spent the past two years on active duty in the U.S. Army after graduating from West Point. The Bruins originally signed him back in 2009 hoping that the Army would release him from his commitment to pursue a pro hockey career, but that permission did not come until this summer.
"It feels really good," McKelvie said of finally getting a shot in a pro camp. "I'm just thankful that the Bruins organization was patient and thankful that the Army gave me the chance to come out and try to play hockey again."
The waiting has been difficult, especially with few chances to skate while stationed at Fort Benning in Georgia, where ice rinks are few and far between.
"It was tough," McKelvie said. "I didn't get much ice or anything like that, but I was able to work out a lot. Fortunately the Army has been willing to work with me, allowing me to train and allow me to do my job at the same time.
"It's been difficult to skate," McKelvie added. "That's the biggest adjustment, just getting the timing back out there. Really everything will take a couple days if not a couple weeks to get it back, but I just have to be patient and take it step by step."
McKelvie was quick to point out that he has no issues with honoring his service commitment the past two years, noting that his time as an infantry officer "was really a great experience and I wouldn't trade it for anything." McKelvie will remain in the reserves and hasn't ruled out returning to active duty when his playing days are over. His wife is still on active duty in the Army and just returned from deployment.
But McKelvie's focus is now on hockey, and on trying to make a positive impression in this camp. So far, he's succeeded in that despite the obvious rust in his game.
"We like him as a prospect," Bruins assistant general manager Jim Benning said. "He's a high-character kid and his physical tools are good. Once he gets his timing back I think he should be really competitive in camp."
Realistically, McKelvie isn't expected to compete for a spot on Boston's blue line this year. He's more likely battling for a chance to play for their AHL affiliate in Providence, and may have to begin his pro career in the ECHL as he works on getting his timing and touch back.
"It's been tough, obviously everybody here has really high skill," McKelvie said. "I'm just trying to learn as fast as I can, get my timing back and make the right passes and the right plays. It's been tough, but this is the time to do it. I just need a fast learning curve."
The Bruins are confident that the skills that made McKelvie a standout at West Point will return in time and will make McKelvie an intriguing defensive prospect.
"He's a great skater," Benning said. "He hasn't played competitive hockey in a couple years from college, but because he's such a good skater and he moves well out there and he's a competitive kid, I think his timing will be off a little bit to start off, but once he gets his timing, I think he could turn out to be a good player for us."
McKelvie has solid size at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, and possesses the skills to become the kind of puck-moving defenseman NHL teams so covet.
"He's a real good transitional player," Benning said. "Because he can skate so well he'll get back and get the puck and he'll be able to either carry it out or make a first pass to get the puck up ice and then he'll jump up into the play to help out in the offensive end. He's a good two-way play, but he hasn't played competitively in a couple years so it might take him a little bit to get his timing back and show what he can really do."
McKelvie has already shown plenty to his fellow prospects, who have been impressed by the journey he's taken to get here as well as his work on the ice.
"He's taken a road that maybe one percent of all hockey players take," defenseman Ryan Button said. "He's probably lived a lot of Americans' dreams to be in the Army and represent his country and that's phenomenal for him. And at the end of the day he's going to get another chance to play hockey, so he's lived the best of both worlds and I'm nothing but proud of him."