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Tomlak brings unique experience to Wheeling for rookie season

Friday, December 18th
Action photo of Wheeling's Brady Tomlak

Wheeling Nailers’ rookie forward Brady Tomlak carries a distinction that likely makes him unique in the ECHL’s 33-year history.

Over that period, over 10,700 players have suited up in at least one ECHL game. But few of them, if any, were likely a Lieutenant in the Air Force, a rank Tomlak earned following his four-year collegiate career at the United States Air Force Academy.

The Troy, Michigan native caught the eye of the Falcons’ coaching staff during the North American Hockey League Showcase Tournament in Blaine, Minnesota during his second season with the Springfield Jr. Blues.

“I had a couple of good games at the tournament, and Air Force ended up bringing me and family out for a visit and I just kind of fell in love with the whole program there,” Tomlak said. “Between the hockey, the school and the experience after too, it was kind of a no brainer for me after I got the chance to go out there and visit.”

His off-ice experience at the Academy included working at Expeditionary Survival  Training, teaching cadets how to safely use the M9, while also completing the powered flight, flying 12 hours and being able to fly solo at the end of the course.

Tomlak enjoyed a solid four-year career on the ice with the Falcons, recording 79 points (27g-52a) in 144 career games and being named the Atlantic Hockey Association’s best defensive forward for the 2019-20 season.

His hockey skills allowed him to enter the World Class Athlete Program heading into the 2020-21 season, as he looks to earn a spot on the United States Olympic Team for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

According to the Academy’s website, the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, managed by the Air Force Services Center, was established in 1995 to continue the legacy of Tuskegee Airman Malvin G. Whitfield. Whitfield, a Korean War tail gunner, became the first active-duty American serviceman to win Olympic gold in 1952 in Helsinki. Whitfield had previously won two golds and a bronze in track during the 1948 Olympics in London.

Tomlak is the second Air Force player in as many seasons to begin his pro career in the ECHL under the WCAP, joining his former teammate Billy Christopoulos, who earned a spot on the ECHL All-Rookie Team after completing his first pro campaign with the Toledo Walleye.

“The Program is talked about at the Academy a little bit, but it’s not very popular option, it’s usually hard to get into,” he said. “Having seen Billy go through it and being close with him, I was able to pick his brain a bit and talk to my coaches back at Air Force who were super supportive, and obviously USA Hockey plays a role in it too, and they’re usually pretty supportive of it as well.

“Once I heard it was an option, I did everything from my side that I could possibly do to set it up to my Commanders, and from there, it’s pretty much up to them if they want to let me take the time off and  pursue this option.”

With the long and uncertain offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it took longer than usual for Tomlak to get an answer on if he would be accepted.

“It’s been a different offseason for sure,” he said. “To be honest, when COVID hit in March and the NCAA season was canceled, I didn’t think I was going to be able to keep playing. I actually didn’t find out until October that I was fully approved to play, so it was pretty late in the process. I am thankful to the coaches in Wheeling for being patient with me and letting me work through the administrative side on the Air Force stuff.”

Tomlak has the benefit of a strong support system behind him. His father, Mike, enjoyed a 10-year pro career, including 141 games in the National Hockey League with the Hartford Whalers from 1989-94.

“Having been there and been though pro hockey, he’s someone I can go and talk to and bounce things off of,” Tomlak said. “It’s a different game on and off the ice than it is in college, so it’s nice to have him to talk to. And he took a similar path to me, he was an older guy when he started his pro career as well so he has an idea of what I am experiencing.”

That support system also extends to one of Tomlak’s teammates when he was a freshman at Air Force, goaltender Shane Starrett, who enters his fourth pro season this year with the Nailers.

“It’s nice to have a familiar face in the locker room,” Tomlak said. “Being able to talk to him about what’s going on has been nice. It’s always nice to know someone going into the season so when I found out he was coming here, I was excited.”

Christopoulos and Starrett have enjoyed strong starts to their respective pro careers. Something that Tomlak hopes he is able to build off of as well.

“They’ve both had tremendous success, Billy had a phenomenal year last season and Shane has been in the AHL and had good success and it looking to come back strong this year, so I am definitely trying to keep the momentum going for the Air Force program and continue to put ourselves higher than we have been.”

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