| by Steve Solloway

How did the Colby College men’s hockey team do it?

How did Phil Klitirinos ’18 and Dan Dupont ’18 and their teammates lose six of seven games in the middle of the season, go into the conference tournament as the sixth seed and beat Amherst, Wesleyan, and finally top-seeded Trinity— all away from the encouraging confines of Alfond Rink.

And earn the opportunity to play the University of New England Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division III hockey tournament Saturday night.

“We started to have fun on the ice again,” said Klitirinos, after Thursday evening’s practice. “We’re at our best when we play loose.”

Which belied that day’s session, when the only voices heard belonged to Jack Kelley Head Coach for Colby Men’s Hockey Blaise MacDonald, and assistant Chris Hall. No player chatter during a shoot around. No good-natured needling. No joking during water breaks.

The three wins in the NESCAC tournament were in their rear-view mirror. Never mind that the student body welcomed the team back to campus as conquering heroes. Or that professors offered their congratulations. Or that emails from Colby alumni popped up on players’ smart phones. Kliterinos got one from the Class of ’94. “That was before I was born,” he said.

To appreciate the present, it’s necessary to go back to the past. How did the Mules lose six of seven in January, including two to UNE?

“We had a bit of an autopsy,” said Klitirinos, a captain and the team’s leading scorer. Which revealed what?

“We have good habits. We were keeping to the same work ethic,” said Dupont, another captain and a defenseman. “We had to trust the system, to remember the Colby (hockey) culture, the traditions.”

MacDonald saw a group of his key players playing poorly at the same time. Not a problem. Colby would play its way out of the slump.

The Mules may not have the biggest or most physical lineup. They may not have the quickest skaters, and those skaters may may not have the hardest shots.

“They’re connected, maybe the most connected team I’ve ever coached,” said MacDonald, a D-I veteran. “Physically and emotionally. The guys tell me this is the closest team they’ve ever played on. When you have those bonds, that brotherhood, you can overcome anything.

“I used to think (recruiting selfless players) was by design. And it is. We use some behavioral science in recruiting. Some intuition. But maybe it’s just fortune.”

Fortune as in Sean Lawrence deciding to transfer from Quinnipiac University to Colby last year.  Colby’s goalie, Andrew Tucci ’20, then a first-year, stepped aside. A year later Lawrence is the hot goalie who has been a big part of Colby’s success. “It was a seamless transition,” said Klitirinos. “It’s an unbelievable team-first attitude in our locker room and (Tucci) was part of that.”

Dupont gives credit to MacDonald and assistants Hall and Mike Latendresse for essentially “staying out of the locker room” and letting team leadership take over. “I trust them,” said MacDonald. “We’re living to our standards.”

On the other hand, it seems everyone has taken turns playing the leadership role.

“The “C” on our jersey (for captain) doesn’t mean we’re the only leaders,” said Dupont. “It’s the whole senior class, it’s the juniors. Everyone steps up.”

Added Klitirinos, “We have our own personalities, our own interests, but on the ice we’re selfless. Losing can be contagious. Life has its ebbs and flows and when we lost those games we had to trust each other, our coaches. We were going to start winning again.”

MacDonald says he has learned that coaches don’t own the successes or the failures. “If we win, it doesn’t change my life. As coaches we have an opportunity to create memories and build self-esteem in our players.

“Winning can change their lives.”

It by all accounts, it already has.

The NCAA Division III Tournament men’s hockey game between Colby College and host University of New England on is 7 p.m. Saturday, March 10, in Biddeford.

The game is available on streaming video here.

You may also receive live in-game updates via Twitter: @themules.