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After Princeton held its first official practice of the season on a rainy October day, co-captains Kyle Rankin and Mike Ambrosia sat on the countertops of the kitchen connecting the home and visiting locker rooms.
They had just left the ice after two hours of practice and were waiting to discuss the upcoming season. After a few minutes of interviews, the pair grabbed their new home white jerseys and tried them on. Standing side by side, they modeled the new uniforms for the first time.
Rankin and Ambrosia have been good friends since they first arrived at Princeton four years ago. Rankin’s from Canada, half of Ambrosia’s family is from Canada and the pair hailed from the USHL. Instantly, they shared tales of rinks visited and common experiences.
All of Princeton’s senior class – Rankin, Ambrosia, Kevin Liss and Michael Zajac – have been close since they were freshmen in 2012-13. So as this year’s co-captains, Ambrosia and Rankin prioritized expanding that inclusion through the team and the younger players.
“They brought everyone together,” junior goaltender Colton Phinney said. “This year they did a good job of welcoming in the freshmen and making them feel welcome right away and letting them know what we wanted. They’ve just done a great job of showing what Princeton hockey is and kind of bringing everyone together.”
For Ambrosia and Rankin, success comes not only from talent, but from that inclusiveness.
“You might have success with a very talented team, but if you have a talent and you have cohesion you’re going to definitely do better,” Ambrosia said. “That’s what we hope to lay, that foundation this year. We still have one more week left of the regular season and then into the playoffs, we’re going to hopefully do some damage there. But I think for the long run that type of culture’s very important.”
The seniors have spent time with the freshmen since the beginning of the year, including an early-season trip to Sushi Palace – an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant.
“We stick together pretty much the entire year, Ambrosia said. That’s the type of culture I think Princeton’s all about and Princeton hockey and Princeton athletics is all about. It’s a family culture and that’s something we’re all proud of here.”
One of the events the team has is the annual country concert at the beginning of the season.
“We’re a hard working class, we’re a very personable class. I think the biggest thing of our legacy will probably be the cohesion that we help bring to the team,” Rankin said.
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Kyle Rankin is the vocal captain.
“Kyle’s a tremendous kid, he’s a really hard worker on the ice, off the ice. He’s very vocal and I think in a great way, he really gets the guys going,” Ambrosia said. “He’s great one-on-one, but he’s also great in the locker room. I think we’ve worked really well together, we’ve been great friends ever since we set foot on campus and I admire his leadership.”
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Mike Ambrosia is the quieter captain.
“Mike’s leadership style is great. It’s something you really have to have on every team,” Rankin said. “He’s a very organized guy, he’s a hardworking guy. He does a lot of the stuff in silence behind the scenes that when you really reflect upon, it’s very impressive. He’s a very approachable guy, he always has great ideas and he’s been a very strong compliment to me this year.”
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When Ambrosia and Rankin step out at Baker on Saturday night, it will be for the last time as Princeton hockey players. It’s a career that’s seen more losses than wins and four difficult seasons.
“Obviously 20 losses is a lot of losses and it definitely is difficult to keep a positive attitude,” Ambrosia said. “But that’s definitely part of our job, part of the coaching staff’s job and every single kid on the team, it’s part of our job to come to the rink every day ready to work and try to improve, because we don’t want to have those results every single weekend.”
Despite the losses, the Tigers have stayed positive – an attitude easy to see in the bustling pre-game soccer games or the smiles on the ice in warmups.
“Certainly it’s difficult. You’re not going to lie and say every Friday and Saturday, if you are losing that much, that you can come put a smile on your face,” Ambrosia said. “But more so than not, and that’s something that our class and our team is proud of, is that we have come to work and we have been improving the entire season. Hopefully that’ll pay off in the final two games of the regular season and going into the playoffs.”
Ambrosia and Rankin are also on their third coaching staff. When they entered as freshmen, they were playing for a different coach than the one that recruited them. And they saw another coaching change in the middle of their careers to Ron Fogarty, Brad Dexter and Stavros Paskaris.
The seniors have played through 82 losses and just 23 wins, but see the improvement. The Tigers have five wins this season, the most they’ve had since 2013-14.
“Obviously our records haven’t been what [we] wanted, but one thing I’ve really noticed about the improvement of the team from last year to this year, I think it’s reflected in the one-goal games we’ve been in,” Rankin said “And just the way we’ve been playing with the puck. We’re attacking more and we’re getting more scoring chances and that’s obviously been a great improvement for us.
“It’s been a great transition, they’re a great coaching staff, they really believe in us,” Ambrosia said.
“It’s more so of a transition and it obviously takes time for players to get used to structures and systems and stuff like that but it comes with the territory, and that’s life.”
On Saturday, Ambrosia and Rankin will pull on their home whites for the last time. But for now, they’re focused on their last games in a Princeton jersey, trying to extend their last season as long as they can.
“We aren’t really too worried about what other people think of us, the outside hockey world, because obviously if you look at stands people predict certain ways. But that’s the great thing about sports. Anything can happen on any night,” Ambrosia said.
“In terms of the future I think there’s so many young gus on our team that are phenomenal players and they really have bright futures. All the seniors, we can’t wait to follow them. But we have a couple weeks left here that we want to really do a good job and give them a good foot going forward.”
When the seniors leave, they’re leaving their program in the hands of that freshman class, the ones they’ve welcomed since September. Rookies Ryan Kuffner and Max Veronneau are the team’s leading scorers, while Josh Teves in one of their top defensemen.
“Hopefully the proof of the best improvements are yet to come,” Rankin said. “Hopefully they’re in this playoff run here and if we can give a good push. That’s what I’ll be most proud of.”