Parker Meant A Lot to All of College Hockey
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
A lifetime. A career. Forty years. It's a long time, and it isn't.
Time flies, as they say. All you can hope is that your time adds up to something meaningful, to you, to your family, to others, and to the world.
It's easy to wax poetic now. But it's safe to say, through it all, that Jack Parker will leave a meaningful career behind. Meaningful, of course, to his players, and to Boston University, but also, to all of college hockey. There are few true college hockey coaching legends, and he is one of them. And with almost 900 wins, all at one school — something no one else can come close to — the record speaks for itself.
But of course, it's about more than wins and losses.
"(Former Yale coach) Tim Taylor said, 'I thought you would've retired after the (2009) national championship,'" Parker relayed yesterday. "But I'm not doing this just for the national championship. A lot of people would be very disappointed in themselves and in their careers if the only way they got satisfied was to win a national championship."
The outpouring of former players and coaches yesterday was vast and genuine. Dozens of them were on hand for the annoucement, including his first three captains. These are quality people. Some of them, like Colby Cohen, could drive a coach mad. But those who stuck around long enough, understand. They know that Jack Parker helped mold them into good men, the way any great mentor can in any walk of life. The way that tough love can, with the emphasis as much on the "love" as on the "tough."
This isn't about making him a saint. It's about giving credit where credit due. Because, fact is, you don't last 40 years at one place if you're not doing something more than winning hockey games.
And because of his staying power, and trademark outspokenness on myriad issues, Parker is tied into the fabric of college hockey, and anyone who is a part of the game has been affected.
And now he won't be there anymore.
* * *
For 40 years (50, counting back to playing days), Parker stayed at BU, flirting occassionally with the NHL. He stayed as players came and went, as the game changed, for better or worse. It was on the latter he was always quick to speak out about.
After the powerhouse '70s, came a lull. Parker believed that, after the Miracle on Ice, players realized college hockey could be a path to the NHL, and started to feel more entitled. That wasn't going to change, so he did. No one would ever call him a softie, but he lightened his approach a little. The '90s were a great run, with another national championship thrown in and several close calls. Then came another lull, more competition for recruits, less blue chippers coming from BU's backyard. That led to Agganis Arena, and another reversal.
There were personal rough patches, too. Losing a wife, heart problems, the loss of Mark Bavis on 9/11, the paralysis of Travis Roy — which Parker called "the most profound moment of my life."
And Parker was the constant, with assistant coach after assistant coach, coming and going, usually onto head coaching jobs of their own.
Consequently, Parker also, to many people, became Boston University. Whether that distinction was a good thing was tested last year, when the program was scrutinized and investigated for a "campus culture" that had become distorted.
But those who were quick to peg Boston University as another case of athletic culture run amok, were too quick to grandstand on an issue far more complex, and undoubtedly not limited to Boston University. Does the "culture" need to be reined it, scrutinized? Absolutely. But Boston University owned up to it, lifted the rug to show what was underneath, and vowed to make improvements — which is far more than most other places can say.
Parker's status at BU became, perhaps, too powerful. But it was never part of an evil plot to rule the world, or run roughshod over a campus to win hockey games. Tell Vinny Saponari that Parker lets players run amok. Tell Russ Bartlett. Parker has run far more of a tight ship than not. He's not Jerry Tarkanian.
If anything, the turmoil helped us remember that Jack Parker, for all his legendary status in college hockey circles, is just a man. He is not infallible, he is not untouchable, and he would never claim to be.
The effect he had on the young men he led, however, was genuine, and the truly great coaches deserve to be recognized for it. It makes it all the more maddening, these days, when players choose to leave a program for a quick fix or temporary gain, instead of sticking out tough times and learning.
But that would just be another of Jack's rants that I agree with.
* * *
I certainly haven't been as close to Parker as others have. Our Hockey On Campus colleague, Bernie Corbett, has been the play-by-play announcer at BU almost as long as Parker has been coach. His tales are wonderous and plentiful. Our own staff has BU alum Scott McLaughlin, who wrote his remembrances yesterday. I worked with Don Cahoon at Princeton for a few years, and he, of course, is close to Parker, having played for and coached with him in the early days.
They are quick to tell their favorite stories, the quips, the one-liners, the movie references that he is famous for. Parker is the one who once said about hockey, in trying to explain his team one night, "It's a slippery game, played on ice."
"To be able to do it under the public's eye and under the pressure he's in, his character, his wit and his sense of humor had to be — and are — at the highest level," Cahoon said on Monday. "Those are the parts of Jack that always resonated with me."
But I've been around college hockey 25 years, and from Day One, you couldn't avoid being made aware of, or being affected by, Parker. His presence was always there, right in the middle of everything. He could be cantankerous, argumentative, stubborn. Aren't we all? But his famous outspokenness was never half-baked. It was reasoned, albeit passionate, and real.
Many believe his influence became too vast. Some might say he had too much pull in Hockey East circles. But most fans never met a conspiracy theory they didn't like.
"I have had some trouble accepting his relationship with officials over the years, and I've got some scars to show for it," Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said, somewhat tongue in cheek.
Of course he fought for issues he believed in. But, notably, the first issue I can remember him agitating for, was a system that would take human influence, like his own, out of the equation — The Pairwise. It wasn't called that back then, but in the early '90s, Parker and then-Northern Michigan coach Rick Comley spearheaded an effort to get the NCAA selections out of the smoke-filled back room, and turned into an objective process. The Pairwise is the grandchild of those efforts.
Then there are the face shields. Oh, does he hate those. Hated them from the day they were mandated back in 1980. But that issue became much more profound for him after his new recruit, Travis Roy, was left paralyzed in a game in 1995.
Parker may not have gotten very far, yet, in his crusade, but he has still not stopped speaking out about it.
"Facemasks ruined the game. It's a totally different game," he says.
The hockey itself is very much the same, Parker said, but he did acknowledge other differences. Coaching is profoundly better than it's ever been — although Parker was quick to point out another pet peeve: "Coaching at the lower levels is the worst it's ever been," he said, referring to youth hockey. He has lamented in recent years, especially in Massachusetts, the declining quality of players being produced in that area.
Goaltending is also different, which is obvious to anyone who has seen the game over time. Goalies are much better athletes, much better trained and conditioned, have bigger and better equipment. So much so that Parker believes the nets should be enlarged, another thing I agree with him on.
* * *
I've said many times that the best college hockey game I ever saw was Boston University's 3-2 upset over Michigan in the 1997 NCAA semifinals. It's a game Parker recalled in great detail when I asked him about it following the 2009 national title. Red Berenson also remembers it for much the same reason, though not as fondly.
There were also, of course, battles with Minnesota in the '70s, with Maine and Shawn Walsh in the '90s, the 1991 national title game loss to Northern Michigan in triple overtime. BU was the only Eastern school to put players on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.
The point is that, even someone like me, who was not around Boston University every day, felt Parker's presence constantly. And that was a good thing.
His departure will leave a hole, not just at BU, but for college hockey fans across the country. One that can never truly be filled.
That is the very definition of a legend.