Spring 2023

‘More than Hockey’: Jake Thibeault and the Power of Brotherly Bonds

Jake Thibeault greets five of his hockey teammates in the Babson dressing room

Jake Thibeault ’26 sits in the weight room overlooking the Babson Skating Center rink. He’s alongside a half-dozen Babson College hockey players—the ones not skating this night—watching the Beavers pass and shoot all over Castleton University in a 7-0 rout. They’re dissecting the game, musing about the reactions of coach Jamie Rice ’90 on the bench, and generally chirping each other the way teammates do.

This is the environment and camaraderie that Thibeault sought out when deciding to attend Babson. Nearly a year and a half ago, as a standout hockey center at Milton Academy, an on-ice collision left him paralyzed.

“When you hear about Babson’s hockey program, it’s more than hockey,” he says. “I knew that was something I wanted to be a part of, and I truly see it.”

“Here at Babson, I am beyond fortunate to be able to go to a school like this and have the family of hockey brothers I have in that room.”
Jake Thibeault ’26

Thibeault might be sitting in a wheelchair tonight, but there’s nothing that distinguishes him from the other players. “Obviously, he’s in that tough situation, but we don’t even really see it that way,” says Rory Casey ’23, one of the players watching the game with Thibeault. “He’s just part of the family, and it’s just that he’s got a different perspective than we have.”

Thibeault’s presence and perspective have had a profound impact on the team and its 27 student-athletes. Those brotherly bonds may be forged in hockey, but they extend far beyond the rink.

“It’s been an incredibly enriching connection for our players and for myself,” said Rice, now in his 19th season as the men’s hockey coach. “He’s such a magnetic and powerfully positive personality that you can’t help but meet him and want to be a part of his journey.”

‘No Quit. Chip Away’

Thibeault’s Babson journey began in summer 2021 when he first visited the campus and met Rice as a prospective hockey recruit. “With Coach Rice, it felt like a genuine conversation,” Thibeault says. “I knew something was special when I sat in the locker room with him.”

Jake Thibeault smiles while posing for a photo on the ice
Now, as a first-year student at Babson, Jake Thibeault ’26 channels his athletic ability, strength, and determination toward taking another step toward his goal of walking again. (Photo: Michael Quiet)

Less than a week after that visit, Thibeault was in the hospital with two broken vertebrae after a nasty, life-changing on-ice collision. He had just scored a goal for his club hockey team, the Boston Bulldogs. On his next shift, while chasing the puck, he was hit awkwardly by a defender, crashing headfirst into the boards. Thibeault has no memory of the hockey accident.

The spinal-cord injuries were major, the paralysis diagnosis scary. He was told he may never walk again—his once-bright future dimmed and in doubt.

The outpouring of support from the hockey community was immediate and impressive. Thibeault now counts Boston Bruins players such as Matt Grzelcyk—not to mention actor Mark Wahlberg—among his friends. One of the first to reach out, though, was Rice. “When the injury took place, he was right there,” Thibeault says. “He was texting me and checking in within 24 or 48 hours. It was unbelievable.”

Rice first visited Thibeault at Spaulding Rehab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about a month later. He didn’t know what to do or what to say. “I didn’t know what my role was,” Rice says. It turns out the once-aspiring hockey player had something to teach the coach. “I left there that day just amazed by his toughness, resiliency, optimism, positivity.”

Jake Thibeault does exercises at physical therapy
Jake Thibeault ’26 attends physical therapy for three hours a day, four days a week. (Photo courtesy of Jake Thibeault ’26)

Rice stayed in touch almost daily, sending inspirational messages to keep his spirits up. Thibeault now wears a bracelet with the words “No Quit. Chip Away,” based on Rice’s motivational words that continue to drive him.

Now, as a first-year student at Babson, Thibeault channels his athletic ability, strength, and determination toward taking another step toward his goal of walking again. He attends physical therapy at Journey Forward in Canton, Massachusetts, for three hours a day, four days a week. On Mondays, he does a cardio rowing program at Spaulding.

“I would love to be back out on that ice playing. I miss it every second. I believe there will be another day in my life that I step on that ice again on skates,” Thibeault says. “For the time being, I’m going to be there (with the team), to support and watch and help out in whatever way I can.”

Building Bonds

During his early recovery, Thibeault also was determined to attend Babson, in large part because of Rice. It was the only college he applied to. “I sent my application in when I was in Spaulding Rehab,” he says.

Rice, who offered his support in helping Thibeault’s admission and transition, set the tone for the team from the day Thibeault arrived on campus and moved into a single room at Park Manor West. “First meeting,” Rice says, “I said to the boys, ‘Jake’s really important to me, which means he’s really important to our program, which means he needs to be important to all of us.’ ”

Jake Thibeault and Jamie Rice pose for a photo on the ice in the Babson Skating Center
Coach Jamie Rice ’90 stayed in touch with Jake Thibeault ’26 almost daily during his early recovery. (Photo: Michael Quiet)

Thibeault’s charisma and confidence made that simple. “He’s so comfortable in his own skin, that it’s easy for us to be comfortable around him,” says Casey, who has become one of Thibeault’s closest friends.

“Jake is the best teammate I’ve ever had,” says Ryan Murphy ’26, one of 15 first-year players on the team. “I have never met anyone as selfless, motivated, and compassionate in my life. Every once in a while, Jake will come on the ice after practice and feed passes to a few of us. The joy and competitiveness on his face is one of a kind, and his love for his teammates and the game of hockey is second to none.”

As close as Thibeault is to the first-year players, Casey says, he is just as likely to hang out with with the veteran players, such as himself or senior captain Chris Rooney ’23. “It’s unlike any team I’ve been a part of, how close-knit this team is,” Thibeault says.

Casey has missed most of his senior season (see sidebar, below) but says he has drawn strength from Thibeault’s example in staying positive and engaged with the team. “Jake’s a leader, and he doesn’t even know it, so I just kind of follow him,” Casey says. “He’s rubbed off on the whole team in such a positive way.”

Jake and the Boys

A group of hockey players pose for a photo around Jake Thibeault on the ice
On and off the ice, Jake Thibeault ’26 is surrounded by players such as (clockwise from center) Nolan Woudenberg ’26, Charlie Andriole ’26, Chris Rooney ’23, Brendan Kennedy ’26, and Ryan Murphy ’26. (Photo: Michael Quiet)

Thibeault lives independently and self-sufficiently and drives himself to and from rehab. But, he’s rarely alone. Charlie Andriole ’26 and Nolan Dion ’26 live next door in Park Manor West, and Brendan Kennedy ’26 and Nolan Woudenberg ’26 live two doors down. In the residence hall, they hang out, watch Bruins games and movies, and lean on one another for advice.

On campus or off, there are always extra sets of hands nearby. “These guys are with him 24/7—that’s in the trenches,” says Rice, referring to them as “Jake and the boys.”

Thibeault says the boys “lift me up”—emotionally and sometimes literally. They’re quick to hoist Thibeault and his wheelchair over a hurdle or up a flight of stairs. But, Thibeault is just as fast to lend a helping hand, driving a teammate on an errand for hockey equipment, hosting the team at a holiday party at his home in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, or bringing guys out to dinner with Grzelcyk, the Bruins star defenseman.

“In the world of paralysis, you try to make things normal, and Babson has done that for me,” Thibeault says, noting the College’s accessibility services. “Here at Babson, I am beyond fortunate to be able to go to a school like this and have the family of hockey brothers I have in that room.”

A Coach’s Commitment

Ask Rory Casey ’23 about the dedication of hockey coach Jamie Rice ’90 to his players, and he’ll share a personal story.

A forward from Newton, Massachusetts, he had committed to Babson as a high school senior, but then was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and had to undergo open-heart surgery. He called Rice to tell him he might never play hockey again.

Two hockey players skate after a puck during a game
Rory Casey ’23 scored three goals in 38 career games at Babson. (Photo: Jon Endow)

“I didn’t have any other options. I was panicking,” Casey says. “I remember on the phone vividly, he says, ‘Rory, I wanted you four months ago, and I still want you now. No matter what your role is on this team, you’ll always be a part of it.’ ”

Casey played 15 games his first year and scored three goals in 19 games as a junior. But, last November, in just the third game of his senior season, he suffered a major concussion and decided not to continue his playing career. Rice again pledged his support: “You’re part of this team, and you’re still going to have an impact in our locker room.”

“He creates such a positive environment for us because he cares about us as people more than he does as players,” Casey says. “Winning games is his job, but honestly, he just takes care of us and treats us like his own. The relationship he fosters with his players and then carries on with them as alumni speaks to how great of a person and coach he is.”

Casey knows, too, how that hockey bond continues beyond Babson. After graduating this spring, he is heading to New York City to work at Lord Abbett, an asset management firm. He’ll live with two former Babson hockey teammates, Connor Dahlman ’20 and Hunter Garlasco ’22.

— Eric Beato

Posted in Community

More from Babson Magazine »