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‘Old soldier’ reports for duty with Bruins

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / September 11, 2011

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WILMINGTON - Zach McKelvie was one of 22 Bruins rookies skating at Ristuccia Arena the last two days, which does not make him an oddity.

His age says otherwise.

McKelvie is 26 years old, five months older than Patrice Bergeron. Fellow camper Alexander Khokhlachev, the club’s second-round pick in June, turned 18 Friday. In rookie time, McKelvie should ditch his one-piece stick and play instead with a cane.

“I’m probably the oldest rookie in the league right now,’’ he said with a smile.

Had McKelvie and the Bruins gone with the original plan, the defenseman would have turned pro two years ago upon his Army graduation.

In the summer of 2009, the Bruins invited the undrafted McKelvie to their development camp. He was unable to participate because he was recovering from shoulder surgery.

During camp, the Bruins signed McKelvie to an entry-level contract, believing he’d be eligible to kick off his professional career that fall. But the Army informed McKelvie that he’d have to defer his hockey career for two years, the length of his required military service.

McKelvie was already 24 when he graduated from Army. It’s a late age for a player to turn pro. Upon getting the news from the Army, McKelvie realized he’d be even further behind without two crucial years of on-ice development.

In hindsight, he isn’t complaining.

For the last two years, McKelvie was stationed in Fort Benning, Ga., as a basic training executive officer.

“More than anything, it was a learning experience,’’ McKelvie said. “To see men and women that have been deployed four or five times, it was extremely humbling and gratifying at the same time. I definitely wouldn’t trade the last two years for anything.’’

The closest McKelvie got to NHL action, though, was watching games on TV. As an undrafted 24-year-old coming out of a service academy, he was facing a challenge if he wanted to have an impact as a first-year pro.

Now, with two years of hockey dormancy on his résumé, McKelvie’s task is even tougher. Among his fellow rookies, he is facing competition from first-round pick Dougie Hamilton to undrafted stay-at-homer Marc Cantin. It’s not just the ages of players such as Hamilton (18) and Cantin (21) that may present problems for McKelvie. It’s that no other rookie in camp must shake off two years’ worth of cobwebs.

“Taking two years off anything, you’re going to build up a little rust,’’ McKelvie acknowledged. “I just need to get back the timing, the passing, and keeping up with the play.

“When I was a senior in [college], I felt really ready to play and get after it. Unfortunately, I had to take a break. It’s just something that’s going to take time. I don’t think it will take too long to get it back.’’

A quality that’s working in McKelvie’s favor is his skating. The 6-foot-2-inch, 200-pounder has an effortless stride that hasn’t diminished. During his senior year, he won the fastest skater competition in a skills event at the Frozen Four.

During camp, the left-shot defenseman has been quick to hunt down pucks, position himself correctly against onrushing attackers, and keep tight gaps with his forwards.

“He’s a great skater,’’ said assistant general manager Jim Benning. “He hasn’t played competitive hockey the last two years from college. He’s such a good skater and he moves well out there.

“He’s a competitive kid. I think his timing will be off a little bit to start off. Once he gets his timing, I think he can turn out to be a good player for us.’’

If McKelvie can find his rhythm, the 26-year-old could open his first pro season in Providence. If he requires more time to acclimatize, he could be assigned to Reading in the ECHL. McKelvie projects to be a two-way defenseman who can start the rush with a good first pass or carry the puck out of the defensive zone.

“It might take him a little bit to get his timing back just to show what he can really do,’’ Benning said. “We like him as a prospect. He’s a high-character kid. His physical tools are good. Once he gets his timing back, I think he should be real competitive in camp.’’

On Friday, the first day of camp, McKelvie and the other rookies went through physicals and fitness testing in the morning. In the afternoon, they hit the ice for practice.

Cake.

“[Friday] was long,’’ McKelvie said. “But it’s not much compared to a day in the Army. You’re out at 5 o’clock in the morning until all hours. The sacrifice those men and women make is just unbelievable.’’

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.

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