Time With Parker, Always Time Well Spent
by Scott McLaughlin/Senior Writer
BOSTON It was the only time I was ever nervous before an interview.
It was September 2009, and it was my first season on the men's hockey beat for Boston University's student newspaper. For the first time, I would be interviewing Jack Parker 1-on-1 (well, 2-on-1 since fellow beat writer Jake Seiner was there as well). For someone like me who grew up as a huge hockey fan in the Boston area, this was a big deal.
For most young reporters, the big get-the-nerves-out-of-your-system moment comes the first time you step into a pro locker room. I had actually already done that, but there hadn't been any nerves. I was too concerned with finding a way to jam my recorder through the tangle of arms and cameras that come with a media scrum to worry about what any of the players actually thought of me.
This was different, though. This was sitting down in the office of a man I viewed as a legend, because he was a legend. Five months earlier, BU had won its third national championship since he took over the program in 1973.
We were working on season preview stuff, and we had 30 minutes planned with him. What if he didn't like my questions? What if he gave me short answers and we were done in 10 minutes, and I left without anything good?
I had sat in on a press conference the year before when Parker had answered a reporter's question about scoring three goals in 44 seconds with a terse, "El nino. You think I can explain that?" At least a small part of me was worried about getting a bunch of answers just like that. After all, I was just some no-name student reporter he had never even met.
It didn't take me long to realize that I had no reason to be worried. As I've learned in the four seasons since then, Jack Parker loves to talk about hockey. I had two notebook pages full of questions that day, and I never got to most of them. Parker was so excited about the new season that all we had to do was guide the conversation and let him talk. He clearly had no intention of trying to wrap up the interview quickly — in fact, we went about 15 minutes past the half hour we had requested.
I had the privilege of sitting down and talking to Parker every Wednesday or Thursday for the next two years. It's those conversations that will be my lasting memory of Parker. Their purpose, on the surface, was simply to preview the upcoming weekend's games.
But they frequently sidetracked into all kinds of topics — cages vs. shields (he's strongly in favor of a switch to shields), neck guards (he'd be OK with them, but doesn't think players would go for it), the war with major juniors (you can probably guess where he stands on that), and even rink dimensions (the puck gets to the front of the net quickly in Lowell).
It was during these conversations that I realized that any notion that he was "losing it" was laughable. The way he broke down opposing teams — their forecheck, their defensive system, their special teams — made me feel like I was sitting in on a team meeting. When it came to his own team, he liked to try different things he saw NHL teams using. There was one day when he watched a Penguins practice at Agganis Arena (a lot of Bruins opponents practice there when they're in town), and liked what he saw so much that he basically ran the same exact practice for the Terriers.
Interviewing Parker wasn't always the most pleasant experience. There have been plenty of short, unhelpful responses, usually after bad losses. After one such loss at Providence in February 2010, his entire press conference lasted four seconds. Referring to the number of penalties that had been called, he said, "The story of that game was 12-6. That's all I gotta say, boys," before walking away. We asked sports information director Brian Kelley if we could grab a player or two. Parker overheard the request and, without turning around or breaking stride, called back, "No."
Instances like that were few and far between, though. In fact, there was another game either later that season or early in the next season when he gave another extremely short press conference before walking away. But this time he came back a couple minutes later, apologized for walking away, and gave us a good five minutes.
For the most part, his press conferences were a reporter's dream. He's as honest of a coach as you'll ever talk to, and he doesn't shy away from juicy, and sometimes controversial, quotes — whether they're about his own players under-performing, the other team diving, or the refs missing a crucial call.
Then there were the meetings with him that could've been uncomfortable, but weren't. The funniest came after a disappointing loss to Northeastern. While waiting for him to arrive in Agganis' media room, I decided to test my basketball skills by trying to shoot my empty soda bottle into a recycling barrel by the entrance.
As the bottle was in the air, the door opened and in walked Parker. My shot bounced off the edge of the barrel and landed right at this feet — it may have even hit him. He could've really laid into me for being unprofessional, and it would've been completely justified. Instead he picked up the bottle, tossed it in the barrel, smiled, and said, "Rhett recycles," referring to BU's mascot.
Other occasions weren't so funny. My first year on the beat, Vinny and Victor Saponari were dismissed from the team after the season. The next year, Andrew Glass was dismissed midseason. Last year was the worst.
Corey Trivino and Max Nicastro were arrested on sexual assault charges just two months apart, prompting the university to form a task force that ultimately found a "culture of sexual entitlement" around the team. Among other changes made to the program, Parker was stripped of his title as executive director of athletics, a position he had held since 2002.
I had to ask Parker some tough questions, and I wrote some articles that didn't always portray him in a good light. My relationship with him never changed, though. He understood that it was my job to ask those questions and write those stories, and he never held it against me. He didn't dodge interviews or try to intimidate me. He answered the questions he could answer and no-commented on the ones he couldn't.
Those who want to put Parker down will say the problems of the last couple years overshadow what he did before then. These problems certainly can't be ignored, and Parker can't be absolved of blame. But he shouldn't be defined by them either.
Talk to anyone who's played for Parker, and they'll tell you how strict he is and how little he puts up with. None of us will ever be able to explain exactly how those two disturbing arrests came to be. Maybe there was a culture of entitlement that went to the players' heads and made them think they were invincible. Or maybe it was just a case of two bad apples making extremely poor decisions.
Some speculated that he had lost the ability to relate to today's players, that they were tuning him out. Every former player I've talked to — other than the ones who had been dismissed from the team — says this isn't the case, though.
Colby Cohen, who played at BU from 2007 to 2010, was a player who might've wanted to tune Parker out at times, but he never did. He and Parker didn't always see eye-to-eye, and Parker even benched him for a game during his junior year. But Cohen said that, in retrospect, Parker always pushed the right buttons and made him a better player. He still grabs lunch with Parker whenever he can, and has become friends with a number of older alumni, on top of the ones he played with.
"You never realize how good you have it until you don't have it anymore," Cohen said. "There were times when I wanted to kill him. ... It's hard to see when you're there and you're in the moment, but I've had a couple years now to reflect on the time I spent there. A lot of the different situations Coach Parker put me in, and what he demanded from me, I can really appreciate it now.
"I think I speak for most of the guys I played with when I say, and obviously you never know what the future will hold, but we'll probably never play for a coach like him again. There's just something about him that you don't get from other coaches."
In the wake of last year's problems, Parker never hid. Before the task force was even formed, he said he was going to take a long, hard look at the program. He worked with the task force and made all the changes they suggested.
If it wasn't for Parker, BU hockey may have never been on track in the first place. He took over a program that had already won two national championships, and he elevated it even higher. He won 894 games (and counting), three more national titles, 11 regular-season titles and 11 conference tournament titles.
He built up a network of hundreds of alumni that he still keeps in touch with on a regular basis, from Olympians and NHL all-stars to fourth-liners who made their living outside of hockey. He helped raise the university's profile and led the effort to build a first-class arena on campus. He helped the university rally around Travis Roy, and made sure Roy remained an integral part of the BU community. Most recently, he got the entire team involved in the Autism Speaks program.
And through it all, he still found time to sit down with young reporters like myself week after week, eager to talk about the upcoming weekend. There are a lot of people who have known Parker much longer than I have, and a lot of people who know him much better than I do. But I'll always be thankful that I got the chance to know him and talk hockey with him.