LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Down and very nearly out, before it had had the chance to throw the first punch of its own at the Frozen Four, the Colby hockey team relied on its hallmark in order to stand up for its legacy.

Whether it was haunted by three early goals for St. Norbert College in an NCAA Division III national semifinal at Herb Brooks Arena, or whether it was returning from Christmas break to lose six of its first seven games in January and risk wasting an entire season, Colby reinvented itself.

Some hockey history: In the spring of 2001, an upstart Providence College team shocked everybody in its roll to the Hockey East championship game, using a double-OT thriller in the quarterfinals against powerhouse Boston University to fan the flames. That team returned the following spring, ranked as high as No. 8 in the national preseason polls and a clear-cut, nearly unanimous choice by the league’s coaches to win the Hockey East title.

That season was not played by prognosticators. Hockey seasons never are. The Friars lost four of their first six games out of the gate and were 6-9-1 by the time November ended. December and January featured mediocre and inconsistent hockey, and by the time February rolled around it was over.

Providence flamed out over its final 11 games, going 1-8-2 down the stretch to close out a disastrous year.

I remember it well, because I was covering that team — day in and day out — for a daily newspaper in Rhode Island at the time.

This January, I sat in Alfond Rink and watched Colby — less than 10 months removed from hosting its first NESCAC playoff game in nine years — and was reminded of that Providence College team 16 years ago. I thought of the weight the senior class was carrying, such promise heaped upon their shoulders only to see it spiraling so viciously out of control. You didn’t have to have a Ph.D. in Hockey Philosophy to see where this could end up.

When hockey teams are faced with that kind of adversity, it can only go one of two ways. You either find something good — a win, a save, a power-play goal — and build from that confidence, or you fracture, the way Providence did during the 2001-02 season, and fall by the wayside. By the end, that Friar dressing room had divided into clear factions and players — seniors and captains most notably among them — had turned on the coaching staff.

There is rarely ever middle ground.

There’s a reason Colby coaches and, more frequently, players, talked about January. They talked about January in January, they talked about it in February as they prepared for the playoffs, they talked about it unprompted in March during an historic run all the way to Lake Placid.

I was asked dozens of times last week, by friends, family and colleagues, about this Colby team. “How bad was it in January?” “What changed?” “Is the goalie really that good?” “Did anybody expect this?”

The answers are always complicated. But here’s what we do know: Those players and coaches had serious internal meetings, as groups and as individuals, and the team was in a very dark place. Sure, they changed systems, and players began the subtle work of simply playing better. Still, it was more than that.

They stripped themselves down to their core. They questioned motivations and goals, both personal and private, for individuals and their teams. They were unafraid of facing their place in history, or what the season’s final record would say about them.

If nothing else, they emerged from that introspection with conviction, conviction that no single player could change the team’s fortunes — not by going out and scoring four goals every night on your own or making 45 saves night after night after night with no help in front of you.

Everybody wearing the blue, white and gray sweater with the ‘C’ on its chest was charged with taking an active role in playing for Colby’s legacy.

On the outside, it can sound trite. It can feel cliche. I almost cringe whenever I hear athletes talk about feeling like “family.”

But here’s the funny thing about hockey: It’s often as simple as that. You pour blood and sweat equity into this game, and you expect those you stand with to do the same.

The Mules were rattled when St. Norbert took a 3-0 lead less than 12 minutes into their national semifinal Friday night. By night’s end, with a loose puck sitting in the crease in the final minute and a chance to send the game to overtime, Colby hockey stood up and was accountable to itself.

Colby’s seniors decided their legacy was not going to be one of unfulfilled promise or that they had decided to fold up shop when times turned too tough.

This is their legacy, all of them firsts on Mayflower Hill: A conference championship, two wins in the NCAA tournament, a Frozen Four berth and an invigorated spirit of Colby College hockey — with a proud tradition reaching back to 1922.

In the end, the Mules decided those were the things worth standing up for.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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