Perhaps the only guy who knows how Jack Parker feels right now is Joseph Ratzinger, the former Pope Benedict XVI.
Both men departed voluntarily from “destination” jobs in their professions. Both devoted their entire working lives to their institutions. When there was some burning question or issue affecting their respective spheres of influence, the faithful immediately wanted to know what they thought about it.
It was more than a family gathering over at Boston University the other day when Parker made it official. This season, his 40th as Boston University hockey coach, will be his last. Many former players and devotees of BU hockey were on hand, of course, along with a crush of media people and dozens more like me who just had to be there. Though we hear it often, and it can sound trite, this was a time to summon all the families: Boston University’s, college hockey’s, and the sports fans of our fair city.
Yes, It’s Time
This was more than the announcing of a coaching change. A brick in the wall – no, make that a large, weight-bearing stone in the foundation – of Boston, City of Sports Champions, must be replaced.
If there’s been one constant in Boston sports over the past half-century, it has been high-quality hockey at Boston University. Parker pointed out that he’s been reporting for duty at BU hockey for 48 of the last 49 years. That’s counts his time as a player and assistant coach. It is hard to imagine BU hockey without Jack Parker, but yes, it is time, as he said himself.
Athletic director Mike Lynch and President Robert Brown shared the podium with Parker. Supporting cast for him this day, they said all the right things and were appropriately noncommittal about the Who and the When of his successor.
We don’t need to recite chapter and verse of Jack Parker’s accomplishments. But his 21 Beanpot titles will stand for all time, and quite probably his total wins at one school – 894 and counting. His three NCAA championships in three separate decades – the first in 1978, the last in 2009 – show that the game never passed him by and that he could change with the times.
What It Takes, What It Brings
College hockey is a special sport. It’s genuinely big-time, in that many of its players go on to long and satisfying professional careers. But there’s not the money to be made in hockey that a school can make in football and basketball. Hockey is mightily expensive, with lots of equipment, costly physical plant, hefty travel expenses, and no television-package bonanzas. For basketball, all you need are five guys and five pairs of sneakers.
Not so in hockey. The institution has to love the sport, embrace it, acknowledge it as integral to the culture. That has been the case at BU, as Parker also stated when he said, “This university makes it easy to win. You have to win if you’re going to stay around a long time. The school has to want you to win and be behind you. And this university for a long time has been behind the hockey program and behind the hockey coach."
A little later on, when asked about the rewards of coaching, Parker cited the relationships he’s had with his players, and said, “You don’t coach for the outcome. You coach for the process. A lot of people in this profession would be mighty disappointed in themselves if the only way they could get satisfaction is to win a national championship.”
While all three gentlemen skated around the big question of his successor, Parker responded to a question about that individual when he said, “I hope he’s sincere.”
To me, that remark goes beyond hoping for a straight shooter who tells it like it is. I think what he really meant was that he wants a successor who embraces and articulates with sincerity and conviction the distinct values and brand of his institution.
That also means, without stating it, that Boston University’s new coach has to be one of the many Terrier alumni who coach hockey for a living. I don’t know which one is best suited to take the job, but the list is extensive and includes Joe Sacco, David Quinn, Sean McEachern, Mike Bavis, Mike Sullivan, John Hynes, Toot Cahoon, Terry Meagher, Buddy Powers, and possibly a few more.
I doubt very much that BU will go for a non-graudate, even though there are many talented coaches out there. If Norm Bazin (Lowell), Nate Leaman (Providence) or Mark Dennehy (Merrimack) were interested and offered the post, for instance, any of them would do a fine job and keep the Terriers in the upper ranks of Hockey East. But it just wouldn’t be quite the same as having someone who’s been brought up in the BU culture. If any school has learned that lesson, it’s Boston University.
Jack Parker took over the program early in the 1973-74 season after the school fired Leon Abbott over a recruiting issue. Parker had remained on staff as assistant after the school selected Abbott to succeed Jack Kelley in 1972. The hiring of Abbott was one of the biggest what-the-hell-are-they-thinking moves of all time. The administration snubbed Bob Crocker, a BU man who had been Kelley’s long-time assistant, chief recruiter, and co-architect of two NCAA champions.
Leon Abbott was from Western Canada and a capable hockey man. But he had no ties to Boston and was a terrible fit and puzzling choice for head coach of BU. Two years previously, BU’s ECAC quarterfinal playoff against Abbott’s RPI team was a disgraceful woodchopper’s ball. BU had blasted the brawling, mayhem-seeking Engineers 11-0. I remember writing that the RPI team resembled the thuggish droogs in the movie Clockwork Orange. That game was so bad that BU did not schedule RPI the following season.
Crocker went off to be head coach at Penn, a prestigious institution but one that that didn’t really care about hockey and didn’t deserve a BU guy as its leader. The Terriers were lucky that Jack Parker was still around when they pulled the trigger on Abbott. And so it was that a misguided decision led to Jack Parker’s early appointment to the job he would have eventually taken anyway.
But he was up to the task, even at the tender age of 28. He had learned his hockey under Kelley, also one of best coaches Boston has ever seen. But more importantly, Parker had also been steeped in the BU way.
In hockey, that matters. It’s not like basketball or football, where winning is enough. Wins matter in hockey, but so do the tradition and the culture of the institution. Other schools get that message too. In the Eastern leagues, Harvard, Northeastern, BC, UNH, Lowell, Cornell, Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth all have an alumnus as coach.
Friends and Rivals
Parker said that the worst incident of his entire career was Travis Roy’s broken neck, suffered on the first shift of the first game in 1995. Travis rebounded heroically and has been an inspiring presence around BU and the sporting world. Jack went on to add that one of the best things about his career was the manner in which hockey people of every lineage and description rallied around the young man.
Some of the changes in the game of college hockey during Parker’s long tenure have not been beneficial. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the people of the sport of hockey.
“Community” is a much-overused word. It’s a wishy-washy way of describing people who have some sort of common bond. It’s not adequate to describe the tight attraction, the effortless affinity, which we of the college hockey world share. Yes, we badger, tease, and throw verbal stink bombs at one another. But beneath our rivalries is a love and respect for those who play and coach our game, and an appreciation for the institutions that take the game as seriously as our own school does.
There is no better example of a spirited and appreciative rivalry than that of Boston University and Boston College. We’ve got something wonderful here, and no one knows that as well as Jack Parker. He’s frequently said that one of the best things for BU hockey is BC hockey, and one of the best things for BC hockey is BU hockey. He didn’t always believe that, but he does now. Each team brings its “A” game to every encounter, and it’s always better to be the pre-game underdog than the favorite.
In his first couple of seasons as BU head coach, Jack Parker was rather, er, high strung and a chain smoker as well. It seemed to me that he thought his job his job hinged on never losing to Boston College. BC had a number of off years early in Parker’s career, so for a while that was relatively easy to do. But I recall fondly the 1976 season. BU was off-the-charts good again, but BC was coming back. They pulled a big upset in the Beanpot and had a couple of other tight losses. Playoff time was drawing near, and the Eagles had a shot at the eighth and final seeding. At a writers’ luncheon in the season’s final week, Parker declared “If we’ve got to play Boston College again my stomach is going to turn inside out.”
Sure enough, it was #8 BC at #1 BU, and it took a late rally and Rick Meagher’s goal-scoring magic to give BU a 6-5 win. The next year’s quarterfinal, same story. Number 4 BU over number 5 BC, 8-7. You can’t imagine the emotions, and you can’t match the memories. There have been many more such clashes, down through the years, and Jack Parker has been there for all of them.
Boston Boy, Hockey Statesman
Something else about Jack Parker. He’s not just about BU. He’s about Boston. He wore number 6 as a player because he admired Bill Russell, without a doubt the biggest winner that sport in Boston has ever produced. That was back in the sixties.
On the other end of his Parker’s career was his 2009 NCAA championship. Miami of Ohio was up 3-1 in the final. When Zack Cohen put home a rebound with 59 seconds left, what popped into Parker’s mind? Bernie Carbo’s pinch-hit 3-run homer against Cincinnati in Game Six of the 1975 World Series.
Carbo’s blast tied that game in the eighth inning. BU scored again to tie up Miami 17 seconds left, and then won it in overtime. Colby Cohen’s deflected shot fluttered up and over the goalie’s shoulder in much the same manner as Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning home run sneaked inside the left-field foul pole against the Reds 34 years before.
I’d say 2009 had to be Parker’s most satisfying NCAA win. The record was 35-6-4, but it wasn’t his best team. Several squads that had been more talented didn’t make it all the way. His first national champion team had a record of 30-2. The crown was BU’s to lose that year. Not so in 2009. Nobody feared Boston University. They were good, but every playoff opponent thought the Terriers could be had. Didn’t happen. Every puck bounce and close call that truly counted went BU’s way.
I also appreciated Parker’s observations about the game itself. Asked for his views on how the game has changed in his 40 years, he immediately cited the adoption of the full face mask. Total facial protection has made college hockey much faster and much more dangerous. Football’s debilitating injuries and concussions are frequently in the media, but hockey has them too. We have not heard the last of it.
He also commented that the goaltending position has changed and improved dramatically over the past decade. True again. Finally, the college game is no longer a post-high school sport. Twenty-two year old freshmen and 25-year old seniors are not uncommon. That’s not good.
I was glad I made it to BU for press conference and got to shake Jack’s hand. Can’t help but think that it would be rather cool to see him go out with 900 wins. We’ll see about that one. He’d have to make it to the Frozen Four. Not impossible but a long shot for this final Jack Parker squad. BU’s best is as good as that of any Eastern team. But we haven’t seen it very frequently this year, and five regulars who started the season are either injured or have left school.
Before closing I want to extend to Jack my congratulations, thanks, and best wishes. Thanks for his friendship and help over the years, and congratulations on the consistent high quality of play and the overall success of his teams over forty seasons.
I started covering college hockey for the Hockey News back in 1969-70. That was the same season that Parker came back to BU from a year at Medford High to become assistant coach to Kelley. I’ve been writing about the game and its people ever since. Though I no longer work the beat full-time, I’ve had at least one interview with Jack Parker every single season since then, as we prepared for the annual rite of February, the Beanpot.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of working as a writer is that you get to meet with all sorts of different people and easily put aside your preconceptions about them. Covering the entirety of Eastern college hockey while I was still a student at Boston College taught me that right away. I learned it primarily by covering BU. Jack Kelley, coach of our bitterest and most implacable foe, wasn’t an ogre whose team of monsters lived to beat up on my school’s team – though they did so regularly. Kelley was unfailingly courteous, generous with his time, and obliging in explaining his thinking and strategies. So too has been Jack Parker. And all those BU kids I’ve interviewed along the way have been were pretty nice young men.
As I write, there’s still plenty of college hockey ahead of us. March is by far the best month of the year in this sport, and for four decades Jack Parker and his teams have been there to take part in it. This is his last hurrah, and I sincerely hope it’s a good, loud, and long one.