Maybe not all roads lead to Nichols College, but the ones that do take some pretty interesting routes, if not scenic ones.
Four years ago, Frank Butler (East Haven, Conn.) wasn’t even playing hockey. After starring at East Haven High School, he found himself between options and ended up sitting out a year to sort them out.
“I was going to go to prep school but I couldn’t afford it,” he said. “It (stunk). I knew I wanted to play hockey but I didn’t have anywhere to play.”
Now he’s skating with two other journeyman classmates — Tyler Beasley and Paul Prescott — on the Bison’s first line and tied for the team lead with four goals through four games.
“The school kind of found me,” said Butler, who ended up playing two seasons with the Hartford Jr. Wolf Pack’s teams in the AJHL.
The Bison, with a new coach — Kevin Swallow (Peru, Maine) — just a few months on the job, were the surprise of the ECAC Northeast last season, going 16-9-1 overall to finish in second place behind eventual tournament champion Wentworth.
A big reason for that was the development of the freshmen, many who found themselves at a crossroads when the man who recruited them — Lou Izzi — stepped down months before their arrival on campus.
“I was on my way back to Atlanta after my season in Cleveland (for the Jr. Lumberjacks of the NAJHL) when I found out Coach Izzi was resigning,” said goalie Alex Larson, who won the No. 1 job early last season. “Then Kevin got in touch with me. It was actually an easy decision.”
The pieces seem to be coming together for Nichols, a school of about 1,000 located in Dudley, Mass., on the Connecticut border. The team plays its home games half an hour away at Levy Rink in Burrillville, R.I.
So maybe it’s fitting that the players comprising the roster come from all over the map. Larson is a native of Alabama — “The only hockey player I’ve ever met from Alabama,” said Swallow — while Beasley is from Indianapolis and Prescott hails from Oakdale, Minn.
“A lot of it had to do with academics and from a (financial) aid standpoint,” said Prescott, whose 16 points ranked third on the team last year. “I didn’t even come out here to visit before I committed.”
Swallow wasn’t intending to build a top line last year out of three freshmen. But they jelled almost immediately, on and off the ice. By year’s end, the three had combined for 29 goals and 62 points, or 35 and 30 percent of the team’s totals in those categories, respectively.
“I came here last year not knowing a single person on the team,” said Prescott. “In the first few days I knew everyone on the team in my class.”
Beasley had been teammates with Larson on a U-18 team in Indianapolis, and quickly meshed with Butler and Prescott.
“We were all kind of playing on third or fourth lines but we felt we should be playing every night,” said Beasley, last year’s Rookie of the Year in the ECAC Northeast after putting up 14 goals and 28 points. “Coach started giving us more chances and putting us on the power play.”
“Those three guys enjoy playing together,” said Swallow. “The first game (this year) I didn’t have them on the same line and I don’t think they liked that.
“All three of them are very good players. Butler has a knack for the net. Beasley and Prescott are just good all-around players. They weren’t necessarily in my mind as the top line when I put them together, but it’s worked well.”
Maybe Larson had the uneasiest start with his new team. He opted for Nichols because he though there’d be a chance he could step in and play right away. But he broke his foot playing pickup basketball over the summer and missed the entire training camp.
“I was a little nervous because we had a new coach coming in and he hadn’t recruited me,” said Larson. “He hadn’t seen my play. It was nerve-racking.”
He got his chance to make an impression during the consolation game of the Worcester City Shootout Thanksgiving weekend, stopping 34 shots as the Bison beat Assumption, 3-2.
He followed that up by making 33 saves a few days later as Nichols won at Wentworth for the first time since 2009, with Prescott scoring the game-winner two minutes into overtime for a 4-3 win. Just like that, an unsettled goaltending situation had a firm freshman hand on it.
“Once he was healthy, he took the starting job over and never looked back,” said Swallow.
The Bison stood 4-1-1 in late November, a legitimate contender in an ECAC Northeast that’s been ruled the last couple of years by Wentworth. Nichols’ best win so far came on Nov. 16, when it beat the champs, 4-3.
“Anytime you can beat the defending champion, you’ve got to be happy with the result,” said Swallow. “I’m pleased with how we played.”
“I feel like we’re an under-the-radar team, still,” said Beasley. “But I feel that this year and the years to come, we’re going to turn some heads.”
The results have been noticed. Swallow’s position was elevated to a full-time one in the offseason. He’s barely three years removed from his own playing days at the University of Maine, where he was part of the 2010 team that lost in the Hockey East final to Boston College.
“I’m a younger coach, not too far removed from my playing days,” he said. “My first year, I tried to make a connection to them and relate to them, whether it was the seniors who were captains and leaders or the freshmen I’ll have a few years with.”