Jamie Rice, Babson College Head Coach (Photo credit: Billie Weiss)
When talking about the traits hockey coaches love, a good place to start might be with the traits of someone who has been coaching college players for nearly 35 of his 50-odd years.
Jamie Rice graduated from Babson College in 1990 after his four-year playing career in Wellesley, not far from where he grew up in Newton, and he jumped immediately into coaching – first with Colby in 1990-91 as an assistant, then at Dartmouth College for a season, Brown University for four, back to Dartmouth for two and Northeastern University for five seasons, all in assistant roles in that peripatetic life.
Then, in 2004-05, Rice took his first head coaching job, returning to his alma mater to run the Beavers program, bringing with it a welcome stability for all parties.
Across those dozens of seasons, that’s hundreds of hockey players with hundreds of talents and personalities, and thousands of good days and bad days that all coalesce around a team coming to the rink.
Rice still loves it after all these years.
“Twenty at Babson, 34 in college hockey,” he says with enthusiasm, followed by a ticking off of the handful of coaches he could think of who are still in the game since his earliest days. “All of a sudden I’m the old guy at the back of the room.”
And how or why?
“Obviously, I love what I do,” says Rice, whose success at Babson certainly has something to do with the longevity. “I still enjoy it. I enjoy all aspects of it. I enjoy recruiting, I enjoy the practices. I still enjoy every piece of it. I still feel young enough to be funny and relevant.”
In addition to simply coaching games – as if there’s any simplicity to that in the first place – and that enjoyment of recruiting and practices, which are the kinds of things that tend to grind coaches down the older they get, that youthful exuberance while remaining funny and relevant, those things over the years wind up creating a culture.
“I like practice, and I like practice to be fun,” Rice says. “I like playing games – and I’m not talking just with an opposing team, referees and fans – but playing, and I like being around competition. I enjoy being around the kids playing. And I think I bring that to the table. With the energy and enjoyment of it, I think that’s a good demeanor. I think the other thing I bring is a fair bit of passion. It’s a combination of all those things. It’s what has kept me in the game and I think draws people to our program.”
Creating a culture also requires the kinds of players who help support and foster it, too.
Rice, who has won more than 300 games at Babson and lost more than nine games in a season only once, likes to see some traits that may show up on the score sheet, and he keeps an eye out for a skill that isn’t in and of itself always considered a skill.
“I think competitiveness and hard work, and how they’re linked, I would label that a skill,” he says. “I think the right environment can improve those things, but I think people are really determined and really competitive and will work hard or they won’t. I think competitiveness is, if not 1, it’s 1A, with hockey sense.”
As another building block, have we mentioned Rice loves the game?
“The next [trait] is, do they generally love to play?” says Rice. “Because that’s how we’re going to practice. That’s our environment. ‘Loving the game,’ can be vague, but do you love to play? So, it’s really loving the playing of the game. Someone who does have that natural competitiveness, who does have some hockey sense and authentically loves to play.”
Boiled down, it sounds like this from Rice’s perspective: “The most skilled, fastest player in the world who doesn’t have some hockey sense and love to play and isn’t competitive, good luck. They might still succeed, they just won’t succeed with us. So, if you put those three things together, those would be the things that I want.”
Rice’s interest in a player extends beyond the rink, too.
“The importance of family, certainly,” he says. “We’re kind of fortunate on our side of the desk in the recruiting process in that you can see them walking in – you can see the interactions, how they walk into the rink, how they walk into your office, how they interact with one another. And, usually, you can get a pretty good sense for both the respect of a child to parent and a parent to child.”
Of course, the anticipated byproduct of that would include a player who maybe makes the world they inhabit – starting with, in this case, a hockey rink – better where they can.
“I do like someone who has a positive outlook,” says Rice. “Someone who smiles, someone who is engaged. And I like happy people. Life is hard enough. As I’ve gotten older as a coach, you know what, you start to realize that life is somewhat short and precious. I enjoy being around people who are positive and bring positive energy. And I really like people who like to laugh. I like kids who have a sense of humor, who can laugh, even at themselves. We try to keep it light and frivolous. I want the kids to be able to be serious when they need to be serious, but I want us to be able to enjoy one another. And maybe that’s laughing at me. You can be serious without taking things seriously.”
On the ice, it all translates to enjoyable practices, and, Rice hopes, enjoyable games.
“I like them to be genuine competitors,” Rice says of his players at practice. “I’d like them to do the things that they’re best at. Practice is the place where the genetic [competition] trait shows up – even if someone might have done poorly on a test or was up late studying for a test. But they get to practice you can almost see the joy in their eyes. You can see the excitement and the eagerness. I don’t want them to come to the rink, like, ‘Ugh, what stupid thing does he have planned?’”
Creative and Intelligent
Practice is also a place for a player to experiment.
“I kind of look at it like: Everyone has a winter coat and it’s up to you to figure out when you put it on,” says Rice. “I don’t mind them trying anything as long as it’s in the context of it being an optimal time to potentially try it. You in alone on a shootout? Have at it. But you try it when two defenders are coming on you? It’s not that you don’t want them to do it – it’s just that it’s not the right time to do it. The players who make that next level are the ones who are saying, ‘Now is the time to put that thing I’ve been working on into action, and it will work because of these parameters.’”
But even the best-laid plans can go sideways or south in a hurry. Poorly laid plans have the chance of getting sideways even more quickly in hockey. That backhand toe-drag a defenseman makes in open ice with no support? Maybe there’s a better time to try that.
Managing the relationship between a long- and a short-term memory can go a long way. There’s thinking about something too much and there’s thinking about something not enough.
“That’s partly how kids are wired in their own lives,” Rice says. “Most of my traits are across all the things I touch – resilience, the things that upset me. I don’t zip on a coaching suit. To tell guys, ‘Put it behind you,’ some kid may not be able to do that in any part of their lives. Another might wreck a car, and say, ‘Hey, there’s another car to be bought.’ As long as they are learning and understanding why things did or did not work, and learn from it. I don’t want a player to be wholly unaffected by a mistake, but you may not want them to dwell on it.”
Ability to Learn and Grow
Repeat offenses are the kinds of things that are worth correcting.
“If something has failed them seven or eight times in a row, you may need some long-term memory on that,” says Rice. “The best athletes have an ability to maybe compartmentalize in the moment but file it away in the long-term memory. They take an instance without dwelling on it, but, at the same time, it’s being copied into the long-term usage file. In the moment, ‘I’m not going to let this get me down but, long-term, it’s not a decision I want to make again.’”
It's about finding one’s way to a better place. Somewhat symbolic of that approach, Rice encourages his kids – a college-football playing son and twin high school daughters – not to always use GPS to drive. Preference there is to learn how to get somewhere.
When his players find their way to the rink, Rice would like them to show up along the lines as he does.
“We’ve really been blessed with kids who are really competitive and love to play,” he says. “I go back to that. We’ve had the Ryan Blacks and Jamie Murrays of the world. But you look at Rory Casey, who two years ago scores two goals in the championship game, and he was not our most skilled or fastest player, and he had an injury-filled career. But he’s really competitive.”
For opponents coming away from playing Babson, that, too, is the idea.
“What I would want is for anyone who played against to say, ‘Geez, they were really competitive and it looks like they have a lot of fun,’” says Rice. “I think those things are hard to measure, but when you get them and you get a lot of them, for us at Babson, that’s when you have something special. Ryan Black and Mike Egan and Ryan Campbell, they love to play. They have fun and they love to complete. Troy Anderson and Troy Starrett and Matty Furey and Mike Vollmin, they just love to play and they love to have fun. If I could say that’s what we’re looking for, well, that’s what I want to be identified for, so I’d better be looking for it. I better try to identify and find those players.”