ULowell alums ready for Hall induction
Tom Jacobs remembers the sandy patch in the ice behind one of the goals. Gene Hayes recalls coughing at the fumes hovering in the rink after the Zamboni had completed its run between periods.
The old rink, Skate 3 in Tyngsboro, was a 25-minute drive from the University of Lowell campus. There were no locker rooms. "Four of us had an apartment; we kept all of our equipment there. It smelled like a locker room," Jacobs said with a chuckle.
It was three decades ago and the early days of a Division 2 men's hockey power, the University of Lowell Chiefs, the team that has evolved into today's UMass-Lowell River Hawks, a full-fledged Division 1 program playing in Hockey East.
The Chiefs skated in a rink that left a lot to be desired, but they won consistently and with plenty of flair, capturing three national championships in a four-year span.
"We had next to nothing. It's a testament to [coach] Bill Riley . He did a fabulous job," Hayes said. "And the class ahead of us showed us the way; they laid the foundation."
Jacobs, a high-scoring wing out of Hudson High, and Hayes, a stellar defenseman from Wakefield, arrived in 1975 as members of Riley's first crop of recruits. Four years later, as seniors, they helped to lift Lowell over Mankato State, 6-4, for the NCAA Division 2 national title, capping a 27-6 season.
This weekend, the two men will return to Lowell, along with a number of their former teammates, when the college inducts the three national championship teams -- 1979, 1981, and 1982 -- into its Athletic Hall of Fame . UMass-Lowell will don the old "Chief" duds for the two-game series against the University of Maine at Chelmsford Forum, formerly Tully Forum, the program's longtime home ice before its move to Tsongas Arena.
For Jacobs and Hayes, the ceremony will stir up plenty of memories -- a forgettable four-game skid their freshman year, turning the corner with a victory over second-ranked Bowdoin as sophomores, playing for the ever-demanding Riley, and riding a wave of momentum to the title as seniors.
Jacobs nearly transferred at winter break of his freshman year, despondent over the losing. "Bill Riley called me and talked me out of it, and we went on a good run the second half of the year," Jacobs said.
A wise choice. Jacobs scored 97 goals in his career -- still second all time at the college -- including a school-record 42 as a senior riding the right wing for super sophomore Craig MacTavish in the championship run.
Jacobs, MacTavish (36 goals), and freshman left winger Kevin Charbonneau (21 goals) teamed up that year for an astounding 99 goals and more than 200 points in 33 games.
"It was a high-powered line," said Jacobs, who earned All-America honors as a senior and finished with 200 career points. "MacTavish was an incredible centerman and a great passer, and Charbonneau picked up all the garbage."
MacTavish turned pro with the Bruins after the season, the start of an 18-year playing career in the NHL. He's currently the coach of the Edmonton Oilers. Jacobs played three years in the Bruins organization before finishing up with a year in Italy.
The power was not limited to the first line on the 1978-79 squad. Earlier in the season, the Chiefs blanked Boston College, then ranked number one in Division 1, shutting out the Eagles at home for the first time in 20 years.
"We had great goaltending, great defensemen, and two lines that could score," Jacobs said. "And we played with confidence."
On Feb. 1, the Chiefs crushed defending national champion Merrimack, 9-4. In the ECAC final, Jacobs netted three third-period goals in a 4-1 win over Salem State. MacTavish pumped in three in a 10-6 victory over Illinois-Chicago in the national semifinals before the Chiefs raced out to a 6-2 cushion in the final against Mankato, with Jacobs scoring a pair. "I had to have the puck," Jacobs said. "Growing up, I always seemed to have the touch."
Jacobs, Hayes, Sam Adams and John Costello of Natick, a center, were the only four players from Riley's original list of 13 recruits in 1975 to play all four years, culminating with the title. Mike Durand of Hudson was also a defenseman on the title team.
Two more championships were to follow, as Charbonneau and more of Riley's blue-chip recruits carried the banner forward.
A week after his team had won the championship, Jacobs hopped off a plane in Florida and cracked a home run in his first at-bat for the Lowell baseball team against St. Leo. "That was fun," said Jacobs, who is considered to be one of the college's finest two-sport athletes.
Jacobs is a builder now, constructing houses throughout Central Massachusetts around his hometown of Hudson.
"The determination has to be there, and the willingness to take risks," said Jacobs, citing a common thread between success in athletics and running a company. Hayes, now a Southborough resident, handles Jacobs's investments, working for a financial firm in Bolton.
Jacobs and his wife, Dawn, have four children -- Jared, Matt, Corey, and A.J., all athletes. Jared and Matt were key members of the Hudson High baseball team that won 26 straight games last spring before losing in the state final. Corey earned a spot on the Hudson girls' varsity soccer team as a freshman. A.J. is a seventh-grader.
None plays hockey and Jacobs is OK with that.
"Hockey takes a huge commitment these days, and I still have a three-sport type of mentality," he said.
Both Jacobs and Hayes said that there's a huge contrast between the program's early days and its current incarnation, with the River Hawks' new home at the spiffy Tsongas Arena.
"Just unbelievable," Jacobs said. "The program's come a long way."