WATERVILLE — Chris Hall had heard the stories about Blaise MacDonald, the ones that painted a picture of a young, fiery hockey coach who could be hard on his players and his staff. The ones that seemed to indicate he could wear out his welcome.

Yet when MacDonald offered Hall the opportunity to come to Colby College and serve as a top assistant coach, Hall jumped at the opportunity despite having never been to Waterville.

“When he came to UMass, I had heard all of it. ‘Oh, he’s an animal,’ people told me,” Hall recalled of the 2011-2012 season that the pair spent together on the University of Massachusetts coaching staff — Hall a graduate assistant coach and MacDonald an assistant after his ouster at UMass Lowell.

“I told people that I hadn’t seen it, and he had been great to work with,” Hall continued. “Then we got to Colby (for the 2012-13 season), and I was like, ‘OK, yes, here it is.'”

Fast-forward five seasons, and the two have been together for a ride that continues this week in Lake Placid, New York, where MacDonald has Colby playing in the NCAA Division III Frozen Four for the first time in program history. The Mules will meet No. 1 St. Norbert College in a national semifinal Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Herb Brooks Arena.

MacDonald, 54, has a hockey career that spans more than three decades, as a national championship-winning player at RIT in the late 1980s, an assistant coach under Jack Parker at Boston University during the Terriers’ emergence as a national powerhouse, as a head coach at Division I Niagara and UMass Lowell and now, finally, at Colby.

When Colby hired him prior to the start of the 2012-13 season, certainly nobody could have predicted he’d bring the Mules to national prominence.

Well, almost nobody.

“I’m not surprised at all he’s done so well,” said Dick Umile, a longtime friend and coaching adversary of MacDonald’s who retired from the University of New Hampshire a few weeks ago. “It was just a matter of time. He’s a well-liked guy, he’s very smart and he really understands the game.”

WELCOME TO MAINE

Things ended badly for MacDonald at UMass Lowell.

After enjoying three 20-win seasons and two Hockey East semifinal appearances under MacDonald — and five seasons with 16 or more wins — the River Hawks went just 5-25-4 in 2010-11, and MacDonald was out of a job almost immediately.

Though he is typically reticent to talk about the end in Lowell, it offered a chance for the coach to reflect on what was next for him. UMass-Amherst coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon called MacDonald and asked him to join the Minutemen as an assistant. Cahoon had worked with MacDonald at Boston University for one season.

MacDonald took the job with Cahoon and stayed for one season in Amherst.

“It had kind of tainted my lens when I looked at Division I hockey,” said MacDonald, a Billerica, Massachusetts native. “There’s a lot of stimulus at the Division I level. There’s a lot of (attention) on the teams … and the landscape for recruiting had changed dramatically. The pro game had kids wanting to take that next step before even establishing themselves as college players.

“I love coaching, building a program, establishing relationships with players. There’s less of that now at the DI level, and Colby presented an amazing opportunity to reboot a program and build the way we wanted to build it.”

Before UMass Lowell, MacDonald’s first head coaching gig provided a glimpse into Colby’s future nearly two decades later. After leaving Boston University, MacDonald took the head coaching job at upstart Niagara University, tasked with starting a college hockey program from scratch.

“I had to recruit 27 freshmen by myself with no assistant when I got to Niagara, and four years later we were playing North Dakota for a chance to go to the Frozen Four,” MacDonald recalled. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to experience anything as wonderful and amazing as those moments were.”

Little did he know, though, a long ride up Interstate-95 following two stops in the University of Massachusetts system, would lead him to an experience that he — and the Colby community — won’t soon forget.

CHANGING WITH THE TIMES

Jack Parker won 897 games across a 40-year head coaching stint at Boston University. He knows that, no matter the level, good coaching is good coaching.

“He’s faced some adversity (in his career), but at Colby he’s obviously proven now that they got themselves a really good guy and a great coach,” Parker said. “I think coaches understand this, but maybe the public doesn’t — there’s not much difference between Division III hockey and Division I hockey. Sure, there might be more depth in Division I, but at any school if you can (recruit) two or three really good players you’ll be pretty good. If you can string a couple of those classes together, you’ll win a lot of games.”

And when MacDonald was at Niagara and at UMass Lowell, he found ways to win games without having the same depth that other, established national programs had.

In his final year at Niagara, in March 2000, it upset heavily-favored New Hampshire in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats were coming off an appearance in the national championship game the year before, having fallen in overtime to Maine.

“Yeah, he kicked our butt when he went in with Niagara,” Umile said. “I think the message I sent him was ‘Congrats, now I’m miserable.’ He’s done well wherever he’s been.”

The ability to adapt, to change on the fly, has been a MacDonald staple, according to those who’ve coached with and against him.

“He was always willing to try different things,” Parker said. “He could adjust to play against however you were playing. When he had more talent (like at Lowell), he could play it more straight up. At Niagara, he had a little different style, he was more conservative. He would change up his forechecks and focus more on systems at Niagara.

“He was always very successful at getting teams up to play against better competition.”

If there was a drawback to MacDonald’s techniques, it was that he tried too hard to micro-manage the details.

“He was a little bit too hands-on — ‘Do it this way, do it this way, do it this way, do it this way!'” Parker said. “Most of us go through the same crazy pattern thinking, ‘I know how to do it and nobody else does.’ Then you realize, there’s a million ways to do it. It isn’t so much the substance, it’s the form that counts. It’s not what you’re teaching, it’s that your teaching.

“Sometimes you learn that stuff the hard way… Sooner or later, we all figure it out.”

WITH AGE COMES WISDOM

The young, fiery MacDonald that others had seen on his rise through a 14-year head coaching career at the Division I level has disappeared now that he’s settled in to his time at Colby.

Well, almost.

“I can’t say Blaise has done a complete 180, but I’ll give him a 120,” said Hall, Colby’s assistant coach, with a laugh. “I know this, if one of his Lowell kids was on our team now they wouldn’t recognize him.”

The pressures that exist in Division I hockey programs, particularly in a power conference like Hockey East, are foreign to the New England Small College Athletic Conference. There aren’t dozens of media members questioning lineup decisions and game management, and there aren’t athletic directors calling you in for Saturday morning meetings after losing to a rival on a Friday night in January.

Whether it’s because of experience or extenuating circumstances, MacDonald doesn’t appear wound so tightly these days. He’s more hands-off, giving the players far greater ownership over their successes and failure, while remaining engaged behind the bench on game nights and letting his players feel his energy.

“I don’t feel less pressure now. I feel like there’s standards we have to try and live by on a daily basis. When we win, I’m super excited for the guys. When we lose, I try not to take it as personally as I used to. I just move forward.”

“When you’re younger, I certainly took a little bit more ownership in success than I should have. People were very quick to give me recognition, but my part in the success at Niagara was minimal. I don’t own the victories, I don’t own the losses, I just try to own the process.”

“A big reason why we’re here (in the NCAA tournament) is because of his ability to change,” Hall said. “He has evolved tremendously. He used to be a very transactional kind of coach: ‘What can you do for me?’ He’s very passionate. His passion and his competitiveness are probably his greatest strengths, but also create his greatest weakness — a lack of patience. His competitiveness hasn’t changed, but how he’s managed it has.”

MacDonald’s approach at Colby is working, evidenced by the last two years. After winning just two NESCAC games in 2014-15 — when the seniors were freshmen — Colby hosted its first home playoff game last season for the first time in nine years and this season won the conference championship and made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 22 years.

“Every player wants to be a player that’s looking to his coach,” current Colby captain Dan Dupont said. “That’s who you want to be. His insight is always so good. He’s an unbelievable coach. He’s been positive, calm, but with that energy on the bench and in practice. The game plan he’s been giving us, it’s been lights out. That’s a huge piece of this run.”

And this run to this weekend’s Frozen Four has MacDonald thinking back to his NCAA tournament run at Niagara, with a program he built from scratch using players he recruited to fit his style.

“Without question, and with all due respect to everybody that was part of what we did at Niagara, this is above and beyond anything about the Niagara experience,” MacDonald said.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC