Updated: March 2, 1:06 PM ET
Editor's note: ESPN.com's David Albright had total access to the UMass-Lowell hockey team as it traveled to and from a weekend series at Maine.
LOWELL, Mass. -- Rising out of a landscape dominated by old factories, mills and triple-decker houses is Tsongas Arena, the 6,500-seat home to the UMass-Lowell hockey team.
The seven-year-old building, right on the banks of the Merrimack River, has a wall of shining glass that dominates the front entrance. It represents one of the brighter signs of renovation in this hard-luck town with a population of just over 100,000 that's located 30 miles northwest of Boston.
Blaise MacDonald's River Hawks hockey team, ranked in the top 10 nationally, has been one of college hockey's brighter surprises this season. On Friday, the team headed north to face the Maine Black Bears in a series that likely would decide which team will get home ice in the Hockey East quarterfinals in two weeks.
Feb. 24 -- 1:28 p.m.
UMass-Lowell is the primary tenant at Tsongas and normally would have a quick skate before the four-hour bus ride to Orono, Maine.
|Blaise MacDonald prepares the River Hawks for their trip to Maine.|
Hundreds of girls ... giggling, screaming and running ... have invaded the building for the 2005 United States Synchronized Team Skating Championships. So MacDonald, his assistants and 20-plus players pile into a collection of cars, pickups and SUVs and head to neighboring Tyngsboro for a quick practice at Skate 3.
As the players arrive at the structure, which looks like a warehouse -- complete with weathered signage that must have come with the building, they are greeted by the last few players from the Lowell Lock Monsters (an AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes), who also have been kicked out of Tsongas for the week.
"Good luck with the ice in there," one Lock Monster player says, "and prepare to freeze your balls off."
Walking under metal bleachers that surround the main rink, the UML players, already dressed for practice minus the skates, make their way to a small dressing room just outside of the Blue Rink. A few minutes later, the players and coaches pass through two glass doors and into their practice rink, which is easily 20 degrees colder than the 26-degree temperature outside the building.
"This is the coldest rink I've ever been in," assistant coach Chris MacKenzie says. "Saskatchewan has some cold rinks but I think this one beats it."
MacDonald starts practice by asking his players to be alert, intense and to pay attention to details. As the River Hawks skate through several drills designed to do little more than break a sweat and loosen them up, there are a lot of jokes and one-liners. It's clear this is a team that feels pretty good about where it currently stands.
UML at 19-7-4 is as high as No. 9 in one national poll, and last weekend the River Hawks swept No. 1 Boston College in a home-and-home series that included the Eagles' first loss at Conte Forum this season.
At 2:25, MacDonald gathers the team near the scorer's booth to set the stage for the Maine trip. The rhythmic and visible breathing from the players looks like car exhaust during a cold morning stop-and-go commute.
"It's a good place to play and we're on a pretty good roll," MacDonald says. "But last weekend's sweep doesn't mean [expletive]. The good news is we're still way under the radar and we're going to go up there and continue to show what we're all about. Remember, it's 29 guys with one heartbeat."
MacDonald hesitates to get the players' attention. "Guys, in one short month we're going to be somewhere special."
In a few short hours, the River Hawks are going to be somewhere cold and desolate.
Feb. 24 -- 4:34 p.m.
The players spend most of the past hour eating box lunches and loading hockey gear onto the chartered bus parked behind the Tsongas.
Before the road trip can begin, there's some unfinished business that needs attending to in the River Hawks' dressing room. During the summer, the players read Lance Armstrong's book, "It's Not About the Bike" and then wrote book reports reflecting on the life lessons of perseverance and overcoming odds.
Coming out of the assignment, the coaches and players decided to divide their season into five-game "stages." The goal for each stage is to win six points because MacDonald believes that pace should be enough to secure an NCAA Tournament bid -- something that hasn't happened at Lowell since 1996.
|Success at Maine would go a long way to UML reaching its Stage 7 goals.|
MacDonald officially starts the road trip: "OK boys, let's get on the bus."
The UML traveling party for the 246-mile drive to Orono includes four coaches, 22 players and two support staffers (trainer Artie Poitras and sports information assistant director Shannon Dove). Equipment manager Scott Amos and assistant Shaun Phelan will make the drive separately in Amos' Jeep Cherokee because their jobs require them to arrive at the rink before the team and stay behind after the players depart each day.
The bus pulls out from behind the Tsongas and before it leaves the city limits, the onboard VCR is playing a CBC Sports documentary called "Making the Cut." It's about 68 players at a summer tryout camp in Vernon, British Columbia, who are trying to secure one of six tryout slots with a Canadian NHL team. The UML players are interested mostly because the series includes two former River Hawk teammates.
Possibly lost on some of the players is that they, too, are still trying to make the cut. Whether it's home ice in Hockey East or qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, the ones who have figured out the connection are hoping they fare better than Anders Strome and Peter Hay on the CBC series.
In addition to watching the video, many of the players are listening to iPods and MP3 players to pass the time. The coaches alternate between cell phone conversations, naps and the Maine scouting report.
Feb. 24 -- 8:27 p.m.
The bus pulls into the Alfond Arena parking lot on the Maine campus and the UML players, dressed in their royal blue CCM sweats, spill out, grab their hockey gear from underneath the bus and file into the classic hockey barn.
|The visitors dressing room at Maine didn't exactly wow the River Hawks.|
The very small visitors' dressing room, which challenges the definition of spartan, got little more than a new coat of light blue paint. "It's like putting lipstick on a pig," MacKenzie says.
Complaints from other Hockey East coaches have made the rounds during the season, but it's still a little surprising to UML that they will be split into three rooms. The main room will accommodate 14 players (one on a folding chair), the second room will be for the seven defensemen and a goalie, and the last room is for the coaches and trainer.
"This is Division 12. It's embarrassing," MacDonald says.
After unloading the gear, the players get back on the bus for the short ride to the hotel.
Feb. 24 -- 9:07 p.m.
After quickly checking into their rooms, the players and coaches make themselves at home in Conference Room C at the Best Western Black Bear Inn, where they will have dinner and a scouting report.
The first order of business is heaping plates of spaghetti, chicken, baked potatoes, carrots, broccoli, salad and rolls. Up next is a power point presentation on Maine hockey.
MacDonald and his staff have broken down the Black Bears' strengths, weaknesses and tendencies and the UML players receive handouts that highlight the key points.
"Let's think about the controllables," MacDonald says. "We need to have a good start and control the momentum. They feed off the crowd. They need them.
"Remember, we're not here to impress a soul. We're here for 29 guys and one heartbeat."
Dinner and the meeting are over in 40 minutes and the players leave for their rooms. Coach MacDonald is trying to decide between watching "Friday Night Lights" on his laptop and getting some sleep. With four kids at home, a rare opportunity for uninterrupted sleep wins.
Wednesday: Bumps in the road
Thursday: Heading home
David Albright is a senior editor at ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.