A Magnificent Voyage
In 36-Plus Years, BU Coach Jack Parker Has Experienced the Troughs and the Crests
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
WASHINGTON, D.C. Win or lose Saturday, Jack Parker's spot in the pantheon of college hockey great was already secure — just as it was for last year's national champion, Jerry York.
BU's thrilling comeback, overtime win only added to the legend. And it sets up the future, as these two will continue to duke it out, it seems, at least for a few more years.
Beyond being current figureheads in the BU-BC rivalry, the duo — like Joe Paterno-Bobby Bowden in football — has an ever-evolving fascinating subplot. Both coaches recently surpassed 800 wins, the active leaders, flip-flopping back and forth between which is in front. Last year, York broke a tie among numerous D-I coaches for most national titles won, winning his third. Parker is now with York on that front as well.
But Parker is the one guy to have done it consistently with one school — Boston University. He grew up in nearby Somerville, Mass., he played for BU in the 1960s, he was an assistant coach for back-to-back national champions, and then took over as head coach, and never looked back. (York won one title at Bowling Green; other active two-time champs — Rick Comley, Jeff Jackson, Don Lucia, George Gwozdecky — did not win at their alma maters.)
This connection served Parker, and his team, well this season. In order to return to the Frozen Four after a 12-year hiatus, Parker paraded in a cavalcade of ex-BU players to help teach his current team what it meant to be a Terrier. Then, they Burned the Boats, and stole the gold away from everyone else in college hockey.
Three national titles in 36 years is pretty good. It wasn't always a smooth road, however.
This 12-year stretch between Frozen Fours for the Terriers was matched by the 12-year drought that came between 1978 and 1990. It was a lull that almost drove Parker out of coaching the Terriers, and is part of his own personal fascinating evolution.
BU hit those two lulls for very different reasons, and Parker pulled them out in very different ways. But it wasn't easy. Each time, it left others doubting whether Parker had lost it.
"Henry Ford said that experience is one of the great values in life," Parker says. "My first five years, we went to the Frozen Four every year, and then we went (12) without. So I've had that experience. So it doesn't bother me as much, because people who make those statements don't understand how hard it is. It's a difficult thing to do, and there's a lot of great coaches who never got here, and certainly who never won a national championship. So you shouldn't put anybody down who doesn't get here."
He was still a young coach when a star-studded team won a national championship in 1978. It's legendary by now that three of those players went on to play for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal — Jim Craig, Jack O'Callahan and Dave Silk — along with 1977 grad Mike Eruzione. Along the way, that team defeated the defending champs, Wisconsin, in the semis.
"After the game," Parker says, "Mark Johnson said, 'I don’t know what happened. It seemed liked they had the puck the whole game.'"
But BU immediately hit that first lull, driven in part by many of those prominent players going off to the Olympics and pros at once. But Parker saw another dynamic come into play. A tough, in-your-face kind of coach, that approach stopped working. Parker attributes this, in a sense, to college hockey's growing viability, catalyzed by that 1980 U.S. Olympic gold that his former players helped bring about.
"College hockey players decided that this was a way to get to the NHL," Parker says. "Some started thinking this was a stopover for the NHL. How important was Economics 101 to you (when) I'm not going to be here in two years? It became about that. Kids are more entitled these days, kids are more pampered these days. Therefore, the coaching had to change. If I was still coaching the way I coached Jack O'Callahan, these kids would've turned me off a long time ago."
For a while, they did.
By 1989, BU wasn't winning as much, and Parker was dealing with some problem players. Frustrated, Parker was thinking he might move on. The athletic director job was open, and he thought he deserved it.
He had the job, in fact, for two weeks.
"It was all about ego. Ego got in the way," Parker says. "'They should make me the AD. Why wouldn’t they make AD? I should get that job.' I never said, 'I want that job.' I was talking with our swim coach before the press conference, who had been at BU since before I had. They were saying all these great things about me and I turned to him and said they must be talking about you. He said, 'No they are not. I am a coach.' The minute he said that I was kind of shocked.
"After the press conference I had to go down to practice and talk to my team. I was supposed to finish the season and then retire from coaching. I told my team what this means and then it hit me that I made a terrible mistake. The next two weeks were the hardest of my life. I had my first meeting with the president of the university about the philosophy of the department. And I go in and say, 'I think I made a mistake. I don’t want to be the AD. I want to be a hockey coach.' He said, 'That is no problem. We can fix that.'"
Rejuvenated, Parker brought his team back to the Frozen Four in 1990, pulling off what he believes is the biggest upset in the program's history — a best-of-three series win at Michigan State in the NCAA quarterfinals. That Spartans' team was heavily favored, and featured Hobey Baker Award winner Kip Miller.
Along the way, Parker, with the help of his assistants, he says, learned how to deal better with the modern player. If Parker didn't exactly change — the players did, he is fond of saying — he at least adapted.
The next year, the Terriers added to a growing roster of stars by bringing in Keith Tkachuk, and it helped fuel a run to the NCAA championship game. That game, until this past Saturday, was regarded by Parker as the best he'd ever seen, even though his team lost. It rallied from three goals down to tie it, and there were numerous close calls that would've given BU the win. Instead, Comley's Northern Michigan won it, 8-7, in triple overtime, the longest NCAA championship game.
BU became a mainstay in the Frozen Four, eventually losing the 1994 title game, 9-1, to Lake Superior State with a team Parker thought was his best ever. The next year, BU was fueled by that disappointment, and defeated Maine for the title. There were two more Frozen Fours, including a stellar semifinal against top-ranked and defending champ Michigan in 1997 — another upset. The game featured non-stop hitting in the first period, and Parker said defiantly afterwards, "Don't forget us, we're BU."
Parker recalls that game the way he recalls movie lines, and pop culture, and 1970s Red Sox games — the way a batter recalls every home run he's ever hit.
"We adjusted our forecheck that game — we played a triangle plus two," Parker says. "We never played it before that entire season — I never used it before in my coaching career. ... We played it strictly to take away the middle of the ice. In other words, be somewhat conservative in the middle of the ice, but still allow us to be physical because the first two guys could go in and bang and run around and get really involved. And that's why we looked physical — we were a physical team that year anyway — we had a lot of big guys that could bang people around, and we were a quick team. In order to be physical you have to catch people."
BU lost that year's championship game, but no one at the time expected it would be 12 more years before the Terriers competed for again for a title.
Parker twice entertained offers from the Boston Bruins, only, like with the AD job, to ultimately stay and coach the Terriers. But BU went the next 12 years without making the Frozen Four, and with three sub-.500 teams in that span.
Recruiting in the East was clearly taking a hit. For years, BU relied upon Boston-area players and a smattering of Canadians. The 1995 team was almost exclusively players from the Boston area.
For whatever reason, however, Massachusetts stopped churning out great players in large numbers. And attracting players from all over North America was difficult for BU to do. The Western powers were taking advantage of their shiny new arenas, the proximity of the United States Hockey League, and TV exposure to surpass the East. The WCHA won five straight NCAA titles, and had six straight Hobey winners.
Parker figured this out soon enough, but the ability to recruit elsewhere was limited.
Enter Agganis Arena.
BU's own shiny new building finally allowed it to begin attracting players from all over. This year's roster, in addition to seven players from the U.S. National Program, there are players from the Midwest, Western Canada, and even Minnesota (freshman Chris Connolly). Both freshmen goalies this year are from Western Canada.
"We got huge recruits now that we didn’t get before," Parker says. "We were able to out-recruit our rivals and get them to come to BU over other schools. If they were not from Boston they were not going to come to BU (in the past). We are able to get those recruits because our university and our facilities are better. That makes us much more competitive. The biggest thing has been that the quality of hockey in the state of Massachusetts has gone down.
"We are now recruiting Western Canada and can compete recruiting-wise with Denver and North Dakota. We can recruit the Midwest against Michigan. We can recruit in New England against the bigger time schools."
One more piece was missing. Parker knew his 2008-09 team was talented, but so was last year's. The missing ingredient? Knowing what it meant to be a "BU hockey player." Parker kept trying to tell his team they had to be that way, and then it dawned on him they may not know what he's talking about.
To get over the hump, he felt the team had to figure it out.
"BU hockey players have certain attributes, and we wanted to make sure all our players have those attributes," Parker says. "We realized we didn't have enough BU hockey players last year in our mind, so we started from the very beginning of the year. But then we were thinking, maybe these guys don't know what a BU hockey player is. So we'll tell them what it is. And we did that by giving them information about what to expect, and by bringing in former greats to tell them."
There was O'Callahan, Eruzione and Mike Grier. And at the Frozen Four banquet, 83-year old Jack Garrity.
To further instill this mentality, Parker made up "Burn the Boats" t-shirts for the players, which they wore under their uniforms every game. It was only after winning the title that he revealed what it all meant.
"It didn't come from me originally. I was sitting in my house in Gloucester and (former BU assistant and Northeastern head coach) Ben Smith come by one day in early September," Parker says. "Ben came by with a printout of a story about (the conqueror) Cortez."
Cortez wanted to go to Mexico and capture their gold. He got some ships and a crew together, but many complained about the journey's hardships.
"When he got to Cuba, he got rid of all the whiners," Parker says. "Now he thought they were ready, and the very last night, going inland to get the treasure, he gave them one last order — burn the boats."
Drawing on that well of pop culture knowledge, Parker — a noted sailing enthusiast, to boot — knew what Smith was talking about. He just heard Sean Connery explain the same story in the movie "Hunt For Red October," which he watched a week earlier.
"'I want you to go out and burn the boats.' And they asked him why. He said, 'Because I want to raise the level of commitment. If you want to get this treasure you have to raise the level of commitment because nobody else can do this. ... If we're going back, we're going back in their boats.'
"We decided that was going to be the theme. Raise the level of commitment, boys. Every time you see the word burn the boats, the phrase burn the boats, you're going to know the commitment needed here, and the raise of the level of the commitment will show up in the back."
And BU returned to Boston on Sunday, in "their" boats, with the pot of gold, and with one more notch on Parker's belt.
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