BOSTON — For Boston University coach Jack Parker, a disheartening 2009-10 season was followed by a challenging summer. After a procedure revealed that multiple heart blockages left him at serious risk of a heart attack, he underwent heart bypass surgery on July 23.
“When I woke up after the operation and I was alive, I never had another thought about whether it would be a full recovery,” Parker recalled. The Terriers coach struggled with anesthesia-induced hallucinations afterwards but marveled at the fact that he never had any physical pain.
Still, the question remained as to whether continuing to coach would be advisable. “At first, I thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this anymore.’ And I talked to some doctors and psychiatrists who all said, ‘You have just as much stress not doing anything rather than doing stuff you love. You’ve got to learn how to minimize the stress and continue to doing what you love to do.’”
That’s a prescription that Parker has been happy to follow, and he surprised some by making the trip to St. Louis to coach in the season-opening Ice Breaker Tournament.
Now, a month into the season, he is still recovering but generally doing well. “I feel fine,” Parker said. “One of my problems has always been that I don’t sleep well after games, so after back to back games I’m pretty exhausted. I’m trying to figure that out.
“I used to go immediately home and watch the entire game — try to break it down right then — and my mind is racing for hours after the game. Now I’m trying to relax and do some reading instead.”
Under doctor’s orders, he is still limiting himself to a day or two a week on the ice during practice with the team. “I feel like a general manager in the stands, watching practice,” he quipped.
All of that said, BU’s 6-0-1 start can certainly do a heart good. After a weekend sweep against Massachusetts-Lowell, BU is No. 3 in the rankings, just one slim point ahead of archrival Boston College.
It certainly is a pleasant surprise for BU fans. After the early departures of Kevin Shattenkirk, Nick Bonino and Colby Cohen — not to mention Zach Cohen graduating and Vinny Saponari getting dismissed from the team — the Terriers lost five of their top six scorers last season.
That said, there has been a huge influx of talent and an absolute change of heart in terms of mentality. “We got slapped upside the head last year, and people returning from last year realized we didn’t handle things very well,” Parker said. “We just got caught up in enjoying the year before.”
Last season, the Terriers had five come-from behind wins; this year they already have four. Last year, the team didn’t win its sixth game until the Frozen Fenway battle in mid-January. Now, its 6-0-1 start matches its best start in 32 years.
This was the first BU team ever to enter November with six wins.
“I truly think that we would’ve lost three of those six games last year,” Parker said. “We thought we were better than we were, then we’d be afraid we were going to lose and that we wouldn’t live up to expectations. This team doesn’t have expectations. They’ve got plenty of talent, but that’s not what wins games. It’s playing hard and being focused.”
The talented freshmen forwards — particularly Charlie Coyle, Sahir Gill, and Matt Nieto — all have flashed some jaw-dropping moves and become instant contributors.
Gill is a slick puckhandler and playmaker who is has eight points in his first seven collegiate games. “We thought he’d be a really good player, but we didn’t know he’d be this good.” Parker said.
Coyle is a big, rangy forward who reminds some observers of former BU star and current Nashville Predators forward Colin Wilson. He’s averaging a point per game. “We thought he’d be our first-line center, and he’s been one of them,” Parker said.
Nieto has only two points in his first seven games, but he’s had no shortage of opportunities.
The goaltending is maybe even better than expected. Kieran Millan is looking at least as good as he did during his freshman year, when the team won the national championship. His save percentage is .934 after five games in goal. Grant Rollheiser has played only two games but has two wins and a .915 save percentage.
Yet Parker believes that the biggest factor in the team’s impressive start has been the play of the Terriers’ young defenseman. Adam Clendening brings surprising poise and an offensive mind-set, and Parker describes fellow freshman Garrett Noonan as the team’s best defenseman thus far.
“Aren’t we glad we got him so late?” Parker said. “Because we weren’t recruiting another defenseman because we were under the impression that Colorado would sign only one of our two defensemen, Colby or Shatty. When they decided to sign two of them, we already had Clendening, but we had to go hustling around for another defenseman, and we were very fortunate that he was still available.
“He’s turned out to be a terrific player for us right off the bat. He’s really solid and a competitor and smart, and the sum of the parts is much better than the parts themselves, it seems.”
Another defenseman who has been a real bonus has been Ryan Ruikka, who didn’t play a single game in his first two years at BU due to injuries. “He really came out of nowhere this year,” Parker said.
When you add in one of the best defenseman in the country in David Warsofsky — who leads the team with nine points in seven games — plus great leadership and play from co-captains Chris Connolly and Joe Pereira, this starts to look like a deep team.
Still, Parker insists that coaching a hockey team is not for the faint of heart. “I think coaching is bad for my health, but that’s my problem,” Parker said. “I’ve just got to figure out how to do it better.
“I feel pretty good right now, and I’ve been told that in another month or so I’m going to have more energy than I’ve had for three or four years, so I’m hoping that’s correct.”
The BU team is already looking like it has more energy than it has since 2009. This could turn out to be a season that Jack Parker will be glad he decided not to bypass.