WATERVILLE — Jack Kelley doesn’t get around like he used to.

“Are you kidding me? I get exhausted just getting my clothes on and going out to get the car,” said the 90-year-old Kelley, laughing at his own expense, via telephone from his Venice, Florida, home on Wednesday.

But bring up the Colby men’s hockey program — one he oversaw more than six decades ago — and the team’s historic run to the NCAA Division III Frozen Four, and Kelley gets excited.

Colby, unbeaten in nine straight contests (7-0-2), will face perennial title contender St. Norbert (De Pere, Wisconsin) College in a national semifinal Friday night at 6:30 p.m. at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, New York.

The Colby Mules (17-10-2) have never been to a Frozen Four, while the Green Knights (25-4-1) are chasing their fifth national title in 11 years.

Colby’s stunning run to Lake Placid — it had to win the New England Small College Athletic Conference tournament as a No. 6 seed just to make the national tournament — has reinvigorated former players, coaches and its far-reaching fan base.


Kelley, a United States Hockey Hall of Fame member who enjoyed two coaching stints at Colby (1955-62 and 1976-77), is among the excited.

The native of Medford, Massachusetts, coached collegiate and professional hockey and served in the National Hockey League front offices of the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins. After his first stint at Colby, Kelley would go on to coach Division I power Boston University for 10 seasons, winning two national championships. He later coached the New England Whalers in the World Hockey Association, which later would fold into the NHL.

Kelley watches live video feeds of every Colby game.

He’s seen the good, and he’s seen the bad.

Lately, it’s been all good.

When freshman Justin Grillo scored with 1.6 seconds left in regulation to give Colby a dramatic 2-1 victory over SUNY Geneseo (New York) in a national quarterfinal game last Saturday, that whoop you heard all the way to Mayflower Hill probably came from Kelley himself.


“In all the games I have played in, I have coached, I have witnessed, I have never seen a goal go in in the last second of play,” Kelley said. “I said, ‘My god, this is a team of destiny.'”

Kelley added that watching Colby from afar has rekindled his love for the school and the program.

“I loved my time at Colby. My family and wife all love Colby, and I thought I had pretty much accomplished what I wanted to accomplish at BU and at the pro level,” Kelley said. “I loved the pro level and the game there.

“But what I loved best of all were those afternoons on the ice teaching with the kids. The games were kind of the exams.”


Colby never had won an NCAA tournament game of any kind in the school’s long hockey history, which dates to 1922. But that streak ended with a come-from-behind 4-2 victory over the University of New England in a March 10 first-round game.


The Mules are the only unranked team in the Division III Frozen Four this weekend, thanks in large part to a seven-game slump in January that forced them to scramble to the finish line.

Colby has played its postseason, beginning with the NESCAC tournament five weeks ago, on the road. Its previous five games saved their season — a loss in any of them and the 2017-18 campaign would have come to a halt.

“They say you sharpen a sword with fire, and we felt like we were in an inferno,” Colby head coach Blaise MacDonald said. “In my experience, in years like this, there’s always something that’s happened that’s a defining moment or time. … How you resolve it, and your resiliency, can give you a feeling that there’s not anything we can’t handle.”

Colby captain Dan Dupont said the team draws inspiration from monumental sports moments, such as when the Boston Red Sox snapped an 86-year drought by winning the 2004 World Series and then dedicated the championship to all the Boston teams that came before them.

These Mules, DuPont said, are acutely aware of the players who wore the sweater before them.

If they didn’t realize others were watching, they did as soon as they emerged victorious from the locker room at the UNE in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Dozens of former Colby players were there cheering every one of them as they walked into the waiting area for fans.


“Where Bill Buckner (1986 Boston Red Sox) may not have affected David Ortiz directly, these guys did,” Dupont said. “They did so much for us on the ice, in the room, when we were lifting in the gym. That alumni base, it’s hard to overstate what it’s meant to this team. Not just for our (senior) class but for the whole program.”


In the program’s early days, there was no Alfond Rink on campus — construction on that didn’t begin until the mid-1950s — and the Mules were as dependent as everybody else in New England on cold winter weather in order to play outdoors. In many seasons, Colby teams didn’t play more than a handful of games.

College hockey started to grow in the 1950s, but with a differentiation between divisions in those days, Colby played some of college hockey’s East Coast iron. In 1962, Colby beat Boston College in overtime. In 1977, Jack Kelley earned his 300th collegiate coaching victory with a win over Northeastern at Alfond Rink, still the Mules’ current home. The team traveled to the old Boston Arena to play Boston University, and it enjoyed matchups against Ivy Leaguers Harvard and Yale.

The Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) eventually became Colby’s primary playground. While competing in the ECAC, in 1996, Colby qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time and was swept by Middlebury College in a best-of-three-games series.

Kevin Soja, who would later captain the 1997-98 team, was a sophomore that season.


“My immediate reaction to what this team is doing, honestly, is just an immense sense of pride,” said Soja, who lives in Lakeville, Connecticut, where he teaches at Indian Mountain School, a private boarding school. “(MacDonald’s) players are attuned to the program’s history. That means a lot to me. That they understand the way they’re representing the school means volumes to those of us who played there before and have given so much of themselves.”


Jack O’Neil served as Colby captain during the 1976-77 season, the year Jack Kelley returned to coach Colby. The Mules won only five of 21 games that season.

From 1970-79, Colby won only 55 games across nine seasons. They lost 127 games during that same span and tied six others — five times losing 15 or more games in a single season. The lack of success never did anything to deter O’Neil’s deep attachment to Colby and its hockey.

“We had a very, very young team (in 1976-77), but we still had a great run. I think that year started to reignite the tradition of Colby hockey that existed back in the ’50s,” said O’Neil, who lives in the Boston suburbs and works in real estate development. “It was a very special bond. The connections, the friendships, the memories are different at Colby than they are anywhere else.”

Kelley, who played and coached at BU and worked with a number of NHL organizations later in life, agreed. There’s a reason he’s still watching Colby hockey games online less than four months shy of his 91st birthday.


“I know hockey players stay close to their teammates, but I’m not sure they stay close to the school in other places,” Kelley said. “I’m not sure a BU hockey player walks away with the same feeling. I know they have a great love for their team, their sport and the history of their sport at their school, but I don’t think they have a love for the school when they leave like you do at Colby.

“That’s just me being honest and being candid.”


The program has endured some lean years, most notably in the late 2000s. The Mules finished with losing seasons in four out of five seasons, from 2008-09 through 2012-13.

MacDonald’s first year came after a four-win season. By last season, he’d had the benefit of four full recruiting classes — finally giving him a team that was completely his and not recruited to Colby by previous coaches. The Mules came within one victory of claiming the NESCAC regular season championship and were ranked in the nation’s Top 15 for the first time in nine years.

Jack Burton was a captain on last season’s squad, and he said MacDonald lured him to Waterville with a powerful message during the player’s recruitment.


“It was a combination of things — and one of them was a new coach saying we’re looking to build a program,” said Burton, who plays professionally with a minor league team in Indianapolis. “Colby’s got a storied history, but a new coaching staff after a rough couple of years wanted to turn a new page and start winning. I wanted to get behind that. That, and the group of guys I met on the (recruiting) visit. It was different than any other place I’d been. You could tell there was something in the air, in the atmosphere. Change was about to happen.”

That change is happening now.

“We have only have two signs in our locker room, and one of them says ‘Leave a legacy,'” MacDonald said. “It’s about leaving the place better than you found it, whatever that may be. These seniors we have, since we’ve been here, these guys have worked really hard to do that. They keep saying, ‘We want to be the first.’

“They’re now the first ones (from Colby) to win the NESCAC, the first team to win an NCAA game, the first team to get to the Frozen Four. They’re only the fourth team in the history of our league to get to the Frozen Four. That tells you what an amazing accomplishment it is.”

And when the Mules drop the puck against St. Norbert in a national semifinal Friday evening, you can bet Jack Kelley will be watching.

“What Blaise has done, he’s restored the tradition of Colby hockey,” Kelley said. “Although it’s been going on for years, they haven’t had the great success Blaise has going now. He’s a remarkable coach, and he’s dedicated to the game.


“I’ve told him that I expect to see BC and BU on our schedule again next year.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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