By Mike Zhe
As practice was winding down on a Thursday afternoon in early February, a group of Babson College hockey players - like most college students, for that matter - demonstrate a youthful exuberance that often occurs when the weekend is in sight.
But this isn't just any weekend.
On Friday night, Babson is hosting the No. 1 ranked Norwich University Cadets, not just a big rival, but also the annual measuring stick in the New England Hockey Conference.
On Sunday, the New England Patriots would play in Super Bowl LI, a polarizing event in the locker room, which is split up almost evenly between players who grew up in this region praying at the altar of Tom Brady and those who didn't.
"I've learned to love them," admits junior forward Charlie Ackerman, who moved from Florida to nearby Needham, Mass., when he was 16. "It was tough being a Buccaneers fan in Florida, where the games were blacked out because they wouldn't get enough fans."
The day after the Super Bowl, half an hour up the Mass. Pike at TD Garden, the annual Beanpot Tournament opened, a midseason event featuring Boston's four Division I powerhouse programs - Boston University, Boston College, Harvard and Northeastern - playing two rounds of knockout on consecutive Mondays.
Among the Babson players, those Mondays are a little bittersweet. Many grew up picturing themselves one day playing in the Beanpot. But they won't ignore it, either.
"You'd be naive not to," says Babson coach Jamie Rice, who grew up in Newton and starred at Babson in the late 1980s. "I was a part of it [coaching at] Northeastern. I grew up rooting for BU. The first 17 years of my life, I dreamed of playing in the Beanpot."
It may not be the upper echelon of the college game, but few Division III teams have achieved as much, in recent years, as Babson, whose players aren't on athletic scholarships and whose rink on game nights is populated with hundreds of fans, not thousands.
Since 2012-13, the Beavers own a record of 91-31-16. They've won two conference titles, reached three conference championship games and played in two NCAA tournaments, both times coming up one win short of the Frozen Four.
"Our kids don't love hockey any less than a Division I kid," Rice says. "There's only 900 to 1,000 freshmen in all of college hockey next year - and there's more than 900 kids within half an hour of here who think they're gonna play college hockey next year.
"Take out the top 30 percent of Division I and the bottom 30 percent of us, and you have a lot of kids who are similar."
Even though Babson's 370-acre campus is a 10-minute car ride from Needham High School, which Ackerman attended for two years after moving up from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., by the time he set foot on campus three years ago, his hockey path had taken all kinds of turns.
After two years with the Boston Advantage in high school, he enjoyed a strong season with the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs. But the next step in his career - a short stint with the USHL's Sioux City Musketeers - was torpedoed by torn labrums in both shoulders. Later he'd suffer a staphylococcus infection in his pelvis.
"When he came to visit here he was hooked up to a pump, which was pumping penicillin or whatever through him," Rice recalls.
Ackerman's story is shared by a lot of top Division III players, who through injury, or bad timing, or a fatal flaw in their game could not turn the head of that one Division I coach or assistant coach.
That's where Babson comes in. With an undergraduate enrollment of 2,100 (and another 900 or so graduate students), it's a small, independent college with a renowned business curriculum and a very good hockey team.
"Almost everyone on our team touches New England at some point," Rice says. "They were born here, they went to prep school here or they played junior hockey here."
The daily hockey commitment, from on-ice practices to weight room sessions to meetings, can take anywhere from 1½ to 3½ hours a day. There are 25 games during the regular season plus conference and NCAA tournament contests.
For players, days usually begin with breakfast at 7 a.m. Classes eat up the mornings, and much of the afternoon is spent at the rink. By the time the hockey responsibilities are finished, it's time for dinner at the Trim Dining Hall and then studying and homework, with maybe a late-night snack at the Reynolds Campus Center.
"For me, the best part of being at Babson is there's no fear to fail," says senior captain Michael Phillips, who is studying business and is a two-time Academic All-Conference selection. "You go through real-life examples and figure out what businesses are doing; sometimes you even visit businesses and talk to people in upper management. You hear what they're saying and try to apply it to something you do."
Just like their Division I colleagues, they find that time management skills and good decision-making are essential to their academic survival.
"You can't be an All-American hockey player, a Dean's List student and an all-world partier," Rice says. "You've got to choose. You can probably do two really well, but it's not possible to do all three."
"Whether it's D-I or D-III, it's something you have to be all-in for," adds Ackerman. "It's something we've been working our entire lives for, to have the privilege to play college hockey. Yeah, [Division I] is a dream of everyone's. Sometimes it works out for guys; sometimes, there's nothing you can do about it.
"But I've had friends who've played at both levels. I couldn't be happier here. It's an amazing opportunity and I love it every day."
Before he was hired as the head coach of his alma mater in 2004, Rice spent a decade as Division I assistant coach, including the last two at Northeastern.
His responsibilities there often had him on the road, recruiting. One night his 2-year-old son, Mark, saw his black travel bag sitting out and recognized what it meant: Dad was leaving for a while. He started crying.
Rice began thinking it might be time for a career change.
The balance now suits him better. He and his wife, Stephanie, have three children - Mark is 14, and twin girls Erika and Kayla are 11 - who have not only grown up around Babson hockey, but have seen how much it's meant to their dad.
"Outside my family and my faith, it's given me everything I have in this world," says Rice, who will also coach at one of USA Hockey's National Player Development Festivals this summer for the seventh time.
"I wouldn't have come to Babson if it wasn't for hockey. I met my wife here, my best friends. Now, it's doubly rewarding to see kids I've coached have a similar experience and a similar affinity for the program and the college, and a love for their teammates."
Entering this season, the burning question was how Rice's team, annually one of the stingiest teams in Division III, would replace standout goalie Jamie Murray, the national Player of the Year. It's been his two understudies, sophomores Brian Botcher and Matt Pompa, giving the Beavers a chance to win every night.
"Coming in last year, myself and Matt were really trying to learn from Jamie, pick up whatever we could," says Botcher, who owned a 1.75 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in mid-February. "I know I've improved from watching him. He's really helped me improve over the last year."
With Norwich in town in early February, Botcher sparkled, making a career-high 45 saves in a 2-2 tie. He was named the league's Goalie of the Week and the Beavers wrapped up the weekend on a seven-game unbeaten streak to move into second place.
And, two days after the Norwich game, the Patriots engineered a comeback for the ages to beat the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl, a result that thrilled roughly half the locker room. The local half.
"Massachusetts produces the most Division III hockey players in the country," Rice proudly notes. "That's a fact. If there are good [Division III] players coming out of Massachusetts, we at Babson should be in the market for the 10 best. It doesn't mean we'll get them all. But we should be in on them."
Over the years, they've gotten their fair share.
"Not many kids fall out of bed, myself included, dreaming of playing at Babson College," Rice says. "They want to play at Harvard, BC, BU, UNH, Brown, Providence, what have you. If they're going to fall short of that, they have to be familiar with our level of hockey, how good it is, how good the education is. And they're good."
Mike Zhe is a sportswriter with the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald.