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‘I know he’ll be there with us’: Outdoor game at Navy has extra meaning for NBC’s Kathryn Tappen

Kathryn Tappen poses with her cousin, Ford Shaw, at Fenway Park. (Courtesy Kathryn Tappen)

NBC Sports host and reporter Kathryn Tappen has covered 17 outdoor hockey games during her broadcasting career, but Saturday night’s Stadium Series event in Annapolis will stand out from the others, regardless of what happens on the ice between the Capitals and Maple Leafs.

“There’s no question that this is going to be the most personally significant outdoor game that I’ve ever broadcast,” said Tappen, who will host the pregame and intermission coverage from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones.

The added meaning for Tappen stems from the tragic events of March 10, 2015, when her cousin, Capt. Stanford “Ford” H. Shaw III, was among seven members of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) killed in a Black Hawk helicopter crash off the coast of Florida. Four members of the Louisiana National Guard operating the helicopter during the training mission also died in the crash.

The 31-year-old Shaw, a 2006 graduate of the Naval Academy, served two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan, and he was engaged. His fiancee, 2009 Naval Academy graduate and Marine Corps Capt. Lindsay Pirek, will be at Saturday’s game along with Shaw’s parents, Ford and Mona.

“It’s really remarkable to have them be able to join me,” Tappen said. “The Naval Academy has always been a special place for my family, and now it’s even more so. It’s going to be a great weekend to be back on campus. Anytime I can be there, I just feel that much closer to my cousin.”

Tappen, 36, always considered Shaw more like a brother. They were two of eight cousins separated by seven years on her mom’s side who grew up within a few miles of each other in New Jersey and saw each other every weekend. Tappen described Shaw, who hung his Navy flag everywhere he went, as one of the most passionate Naval Academy graduates she has ever met. After Tappen left NHL Network in 2014 to join NBC Sports, where her responsibilities include coverage of Notre Dame football, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank sent her a large care package of Notre Dame gear. Tappen emailed her cousin, who was stationed in Afghanistan at the time, to ask if he and his fellow officers would be interested in some Fighting Irish swag.

“He said, ‘I’m not wearing that,’ ” said Tappen, who added that Plank eventually arranged for a package of Navy-branded gear to be sent overseas instead.

Tappen, a Rutgers graduate, visited Shaw in Annapolis at least once while he was a midshipman. The last time she was on campus before this weekend was in October 2015, seven months after her cousin’s death. It was the week before Notre Dame hosted Navy in South Bend, so Tappen and a few of her NBC colleagues were in town to chat with Navy players and coaches. During their visit, they met with Vice Admiral Walter E. “Ted” Carter, the U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent, who escorted them into Memorial Hall, where Shaw’s name was displayed among the names of other alumni who died in service to their country.

“I was very emotionally raw at the time,” Tappen said of the experience. “I think being back there this weekend will be more a celebration to be there and to really share in the moment. I know he’ll be there with us for sure.”

Saturday’s broadcast will feature interviews with representatives from the Naval Academy and video of U.S. military personnel stationed around the world. Play-by-play man Mike Emrick was scheduled to tour the campus Friday, wind-permitting. The aircraft carrier flight deck design and model fighter jet that surrounds the rink, scheduled performances by military musical ensembles and 500 midshipmen in the stands will only add to the patriotic pageantry of the NHL’s first outdoor game at a service academy. Tappen, who recently returned from covering the Olympics in PyeongChang, is especially excited to see the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team, which will be honored during the second intermission.

“They’re just an incredible group of role models who I look up to, so being able to broadcast that game with my colleagues and share that moment with them was a highlight of my career,” Tappen said of the Americans’ shootout win over Canada in the gold medal game.

Tappen said Shaw would “hands-down” be at Saturday’s game, were he still alive. Shaw was a standout lacrosse player in high school, but he got more into hockey after she started covering the Bruins in her first job out of college at NESN. Tappen remains close with many of the military friends Shaw used to brag to about his cousin’s awesome sports broadcasting career. She serves as an ambassador for the Marine Raider Foundation, a nonprofit that provides support to active duty and retired MARSOC Raiders and their families, as well as to the families of Raiders who have lost their lives.

“For me, it’s a matter of giving back to the organization that gave so much to us while we were going through the most difficult time in our lives,” said Tappen, who helped organize the foundation’s first charity fundraiser in New York later this year. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t try to think about how Ford would do things, or how he would want me to do something, or the way he acted, or the way he embraced life.

“He was just such a larger than life personality. I just try every day not to let the little things bother me, and if I can honor him in some way, the best way I can is to give back.”

Read more on the Capitals:

Capitals head to Navy armed with fond outdoor game memories

Four years ago, Barry Trotz sought to unite the Caps with a trip to the Naval Academy

John Carlson’s outdoor game outfit inspired by Roger Staubach

High winds in Annapolis force cancellation of outdoor practices

Capitals don’t make any moves at ‘expensive’ trade deadline

Capitals raise some season ticket prices for 10th time in past 11 years