Craig Sanders will be the first to tell you he wasn't promised anything.
In the summer of 2004, Sanders, about to become a freshman at Boston University, asked to try out with the men's hockey team. The Terriers, a perennial Hockey East contender, happened to have an open roster spot. But no recruiters had seen him play, and longtime BU coach Jack Parker had no idea who Sanders was.
They allowed Sanders to skate with the squad, but team officials sent a clear message.
"They told me, 'Look, we can't promise anything past the summer, but the opportunity is yours,' " recalled Sanders.
"I felt like I won a radio contest to work out with the Terriers. I was completely in awe of the program."
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Sanders lived in Dallas, Miami, and finally Wellesley, following his father's career. All the while, Sanders dreamed of playing Division 1 college hockey. He prepped in Michigan during his high school years, then played a post-graduate season at the Pomfret School in Connecticut. His final stop before BU was a season with the Valley Junior Warriors in Haverhill, a member of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
Sanders didn't pull on his No. 20 BU game jersey very often. But that didn't matter to him. For four years, every moment of every practice, in Sanders' mind he was playing like it was overtime at the Beanpot.
"He was one of the best teammates I've ever had, to tell you the truth," said Terriers captain Peter MacArthur. "Though he didn't play a lot of games, people on the inside know he had the ability to play every game."
Sanders knew his role on the team. As a practice player, his job was to push his teammates in every drill. He didn't take pride in scoring the winning goal in a big game, but by blocking shots or killing a penalty in a practice drill in front of thousands of empty seats.
He didn't do it for the fans. Sanders said he's shared the ice with 41 different players over his four years at BU. Ask a sample of players what they think of Sanders, and they'll say he's earned the respect of every one of them.
"You don't have many teammates who always work hard every single time out," said defenseman Dan Spang, who played two seasons at BU with Sanders and now skates for the Worcester Sharks, San Jose's affiliate in the American Hockey League. "He was the first guy on the ice, and always the last guy off. He was always doing the right thing; that's a credit to him."
As a business major in BU's School of Management, Sanders was also working harder off the ice than many of his teammates.
"None of the hockey players do it, because it's so time-consuming. I don't know of any hockey players that completed business school," said Spang, who's from Winchester. "So many guys tried it freshman year, but they'd be lucky to make it a few weeks. They'd switch out."
Not Sanders. During school, he had class in the morning, hockey in the afternoon, and business meetings at night. In the summer, workouts started at sunrise, and he interned at Merrill Lynch. At night he skated with former Terriers such as Tom Poti (Washington Capitals defensemen) and Framingham's Carl Corrazini (former Boston Bruin, now with Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich.) in a summer league, trying to improve his talents.
He played in 18 games at BU, mostly when someone was injured. While his teammates were winning three consecutive Beanpots, Sanders was cheering from the press box. When the game was over, he rushed onto the ice and celebrated his friends' accomplishments.
This season, they celebrated Sanders. In a rare occurrence, the Terriers didn't make the Beanpot final. They lost, 4-3, in overtime to Boston College in the first round, ending a 13-year streak of appearances in the title game. But in the tournament's consolation round, with BU facing Northeastern on Feb. 11, Sanders earned a chance to play at the TD Banknorth Garden for the first time.
In the second period, Northeastern was ahead, 4-2. Sanders was on the bench, as sophomore left wing Luke Popko skated alongside center Colin Wilson, the Terriers' freshman star. Sanders, as usual, was ready and willing for a chance to get on the ice.
Popko "came off for a change," recalled Sanders, "and as he was coming to the bench, someone said, 'Sanders, go, go, go.' So I jumped on the ice as Wilson was breaking out."
Wilson tried to hit a streaking Sanders with a pass, but a Northeastern defender blocked it. Sanders was able to push the puck through the defender's skates back to Wilson, who ripped what Sanders called "an absolute NHL slap shot" past Huskies goalie Brad Theissen.
His teammates and parents cheered, as did his sister, Chelsea, who played a similar workmanlike, blue-collar game for the Division 2 state champion Wellesley High girls' basketball team this year. BU scored two more goals to beat Northeastern, 5-4.
In the last game Sanders played for the Terriers, he scored his first - and only - collegiate point. Just like the summer of 2004, he wasn't supposed to be there. But he got his chance, and made the most of it.
"It's been an outstanding experience," said Sanders, who will try to play in Europe next year as he pursues business there. "It's all positive. At the end of the day, it's not how many games I played, or how many points I had - or lack thereof - it's the experiences I had with my teammates that I'm going to remember. There was so much more to it than what happened on the ice."