The Grandmaster, Part I

On Nov. 27, 1999, he became only the fourth coach in college hockey history to record 600 wins. In 27 years at Boston University, he’s had only five losing seasons while posting 17 (soon to be 18) 20-win campaigns, 16 NCAA appearances, 10 Hockey East and ECAC titles, and two national championships.


He’s a two-time Spencer T. Penrose Award winner as the national coach of the year and been honored as Hockey East’s top coach twice.

As a player, he won three Beanpot championships in three years, which only served as a precursor to becoming the winningest coach in the tournament’s history with another 14 titles.

Jack Parker is, simply put, a college hockey legend, albeit one who is still looking to add to his legacy at BU, where over the past 27 years he’s become synonymous with Terrier success.

Unlike the three coaches who preceded him to the 600-win plateau — Ron Mason, Bob Peters and Len Ceglarski — and Jeff Sauer, who followed closely behind, Parker has accumulated his 600-plus-wins-and-counting at one school as opposed to the two or three where his colleagues have seen success.

“I don’t really know if it’s easier or harder at just one school,” says Parker. “I think in some ways it’s familiarity breeds contempt. It’s good to maybe get out and get a fresh start someplace else. That’s why people seem to take off when they get traded sometimes.

“But at the same time, it’s nice that one of the great things we have going at BU is the consistency of the relationship between the former players and the current players. We have all kinds of social events in the summer and during the course of the year where we get former BU hockey players together.

“It’s nice to see the guys who wore number 17 and 19 in ’68 hang around with the guys who wore number 17 and 19 in ’92. They know each other. The reason why they know each other is they all have a relationship with me and my staff.

“That consistency has made it easy to have a real close-knit family approach to BU hockey. Before we started [a recent game against Boston College], I said to the guys, ‘Unlike any other games you’ll play this year, there are a lot of former great BU hockey players in the building tonight. Let them know you’re wearing it well.'”

Secret No. 1: BC

Ironically, Parker credits Boston College with a good portion of his own success.

“The rivalry we’ve had with BC over along period of time has made BU hockey,” he says. “There’s such a fight over bragging rights in every capacity, not just athletics, between those two schools.

“You ask any alum in 1930 and 1990 who was BU’s biggest rival and they’d tell you BC. We don’t play them in any sports except hockey.”

While the two schools do occasionally meet in track events and faced each other in baseball before the demise of that Terrier sport, they didn’t play in football and are in different leagues in both men’s and women’s basketball.

“Great rivalries make a sport sometimes,” says Parker. “There’s no question that having a rival like BC and being as successful as we’ve been against them over a long period has really catapulted our student body and our alums into really loving hockey around here.

“The administration has always been supportive of the sport just because there’s been enthusiasm for the sport on campus.”

Secret No. 2: Adding The Right Players

Of course, even the most natural rivalry will wither and die without great athletes on both sides to feed it. Parker credits the impressive line of assistant coaches he’s had over the years — Princeton head coach Don “Toot” Cahoon, former Northeastern head coach Ben Smith, Niagara head coach Blaise MacDonald and current assistants Brian Durocher and Mike Bavis — who have helped recruit not only exceptional talent but also the kind of character that Parker looks for.

“It’s a lot easier to win on the ice if you have character in the dressing room and guys care about how hard they work and about how hard they work for their teammates,” says Parker. “It’s a lot more difficult to win if you’ve got plenty of talent but you’ve got guys who are real selfish.

“The best way to have a character dressing room is to recruit character. I think the best way to recruit character is to get assistant coaches who know what character is because they’ve got it, too.

“I’ve been blessed with great assistant coaches who were real good guys and knew what we were looking for and knew what type of guy we want in the dressing room. The [concept of a coach] building character in America’s youth is overrated in our program, at least. We go out of the way to make it look like we build character because we recruited it.”

Parker offers former Terrier Mike Grier as a prime example. The 6-1, 235-pound Grier was the prototypical power forward and earned All-America honors in 1995.

“Whenever we’re recruiting players,” says Parker, “we’re always [asking], ‘What special thing do they bring?’ Tony Amonte was such a great competitor. Shawn McEachern had unbelievable speed.

“I remember saying to Blaise McDonald, ‘Blaise, now obviously the thing we love about Grier the best is his size, right?’

“Blaise said, ‘No, no, Jack, the thing we love about him is you watch when the game is over. When he comes out of the dressing room, four of his buddies on his team are hanging around with him, and four of the guys he just beat can’t wait to hang around with him, too. He’s going to be captain of the [Terriers]. He’s an unbelievable character kid.’

“He never was captain of the team because he signed a pro contract at the end of his junior year, but Blaise was absolutely correct. You couldn’t meet a nicer family, nicer people and a classier kid.

“I thought Grier was big. He was big on character.”

Secret No. 3: Taking Care Of Business

Parker has also shown a willingness to let uniquely talented players use those special abilities to their fullest rather than having a rigidly predefined approach where everyone has to fit a specific mold. Recent addition Freddie Meyer has added offense from the blue line from his very first game instead of having shackles imposed on his style until he proved himself. Former All-American defenseman Tom Poti provided an even more extreme example of a special talent who was allowed to contribute in a unique way.

“One of our philosophies is that we’d like you to take care of business,” says Parker. “By that we mean that we’d like you to make sure you play defense first. So if you’re Shawn McEachern, let’s make sure you become a good defensive center even though we know you’re a great offensive center.

“If you’re Tom Poti, let’s not get caught up the ice too much, Tom. I don’t care if you rush it every single time as long as you get back. If you can figure out how to take care of business, go do whatever else you want, but just take care of business first.

“Most good players can figure that out. ‘What he’s asking us to do is not that difficult. It’s not that confining and once I take care of business I can do whatever else I want.’ Creative players can create then.

“There’s a problem that coaches have and I’ve had over the years probably more than most. I always tell my team that I know I can’t make a player creative, but I also know that I can take his creativity away. And we both, the player and the coach, have to work at making sure we don’t allow that to happen.

“Sometimes we’re successful at that and sometimes we’re not. Sometimes kids are just, ‘Yeah, I hear you, but I’m not doing that.'” Parker laughs and adds, “I’m not sure Tom Poti was too concerned about what I was saying to him.”

Secret No. 4: Subtracting The Wrong Players

There have been instances, however, when Parker has felt compelled to remove a player who he feels has become a detriment to the team.

“There are times when our philosophy is that we’d like you to take care of business off the ice as well and if you don’t want to, then we don’t need you around,” he says. “We’d like the dressing room to be [filled] with kids who are concerned about the two guys sitting next to them, not so much concerned about the guy in his own seat. But sometimes we get guys who put themselves above the team.

“I can think of four guys in 27 years who we asked to leave and took their scholarships away from them. That’s not a big number, but we were happy to do that because they didn’t fit in. It was good for them. too. All of those guys went elsewhere and had good careers, so it wasn’t as if it ruined them.

“We’ve had some [other] guys we’ve told, ‘You’re not going to play anymore, but we’re not going to take your scholarship away. It’s our problem. We made a mistake.’ But we’ve taken the scholarships away from just four guys over the 27 years.

“At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. As it turned out, it was always terrific for the team. The team seemed to take off after that. For the most part, it was good for the kid.

“The worst part about it was the parents. I had no qualms saying [to the kid], ‘Hey, lookit, we’ve been through this a number of times and I’m not surprising you by telling you that you’re not here anymore.’ But the parents have a harder time with it than anybody because that’s their guy and it’s almost like a public I-don’t-love-you. They’re nice people and they want the best for their kid.”

In one particular case, however, the parting resulted in a Hollywood ending. Todd Johnson, a junior in 1979, had frustrated Parker to the point where addition by subtraction seemed the only solution.

“I told him I didn’t like his attitude, I didn’t want him on the team and I wouldn’t have him on the team the next year,” says Parker. “I wasn’t taking his scholarship away, but I didn’t want him back.

“At the end of the year, his father came in to see me and I thought, ‘Oh boy, here we go.’ But he came in and he said, ‘I just want to thank you for the opportunity you gave my son. You gave him a scholarship and he didn’t live up to it.

“‘I had never come to a practice in my life, but I watched what was going on this year and I couldn’t believe how he was playing, so I came to a few practices to see what was going on. I understand where you’re coming from.

“‘The fact of the matter is, he’s my son and I have to love him. He’s not your son and you don’t have to. I respect that. But I wanted to thank you for the chance you gave him.'”

Parker was stunned.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I said, ‘Mr. Johnson, I tell you what. With that attitude, why don’t you tell Todd to come in and see me. I think I’m going to re-evaluate where I’m at here because if he’s from your stock, we’ve got to have a way to figure out how to get him back here.’

“He wound up being our most valuable player in his senior year and is one of my real close friends to this day.”

Beanpot Dominance

Parker is quick to point out that his former mentor, Jack Kelley, coached the Terriers to six Beanpot titles before leaving for pro hockey. Coincidentally or not, however, Kelley’s first didn’t come until he had a player named Jack Parker to hop over the boards.

The Beanpot had already established itself as a major happening in the Boston sports scene by the early sixties. In its early years, however, Harvard and Boston College dominated the event, not BU. Those two teams took the title in all but 1958 and generated the tournament’s first Boston Garden sellout in the 1961 championship game, a feat they repeated in their 1962 and 1963 matchups as well.

When Parker suited up for his first Beanpot, the Terriers had won only the 1958 title in 13 years. However, they would go on to win eight of the next 10 and 20 of the next 32.

“Then it became Hate BU time for all the other schools,” says Parker wryly. “I don’t think there’s any question that the Beanpot has helped BU’s success in college hockey. I would imagine that BU’s success in the Beanpot has helped the Beanpot as well.”

But how could one team come to develop such a monopoly on a tournament?

“One, great players, ” says Parker. “Sometimes we just happened get the right school at the right time. It’s a rotating draw, but it’s happened a few times where the draw went right for us. But I’d say that most of the time we had the best players.

“The other factor is that the Beanpot is played in February after you get a chance to gel your team. Historically, BU teams have not gotten off the mark too well, but we’ve played better in the second half of the year than the first.

“If the Beanpot were in December, we’d never have the record we have. I think we’ve been fortunate” — Parker laughs here — “that I’ve had time to screw the team up and then get it back to where they should be playing by the time February rolls around.”

Giving Refs An Earful

Parker’s fiery competitiveness has translated into a few bench-minor penalties over the years after a referee has concluded that he’s heard a few too many verbs, nouns and adjectives at high decibel levels from the Terrier bench. It’s a tightrope that vocal coaches have to walk. How do you stand up for your team while avoiding a bench minor?

“Not very well over a long period of time,” says Parker with a laugh. “But I will say for the most part, as much as I may disagree with the referee in the heat of the battle, I think it’s a real hard job and I think most of those guys are giving you a sincere effort.

“There are a few guys who I think have hidden agendas. They’re worried about their next game or a preconceived notion of how this game should come out, or how I should treat this guy.

“There was a guy who was a referee for a long time in the old ECAC league called Frank Kelley, who used to get all the big games because he was a real good referee. We were playing in all the big games so we saw him quite a bit, and I bet you I yelled more at Frankie Kelley in two years than I’ve yelled at every other referee combined. And we’re real good friends. I think Frankie knew where I was coming from, and vice versa.

“I see guys like [John] Gravallese and Jeff Bunyon and Jimmy Fitz [Fitzgerald]. They’re good guys trying to do a good job and they want to give you their best effort. When the game is over, I don’t think that they’re [ticked] off and thinking, ‘What was he yelling at me for?’ I don’t think they ever bring it into the next game.

“So I never think much about it until the game starts. I never look at who’s refereeing the game until they show up on the ice.

“I think it’s about as difficult a job as there is sports. These guys that referee football would never do hockey again. They go out there and when there’s a question, all five or six guys get in a huddle and agree on it and there’s nobody you can blame. But in hockey, we can scream at a ref.

“I think the refs bring it on themselves sometimes, too, because they allow me to do it. Some guys, it doesn’t bother. Some guys get [ticked] off. I always say that most of the time when I get a bench minor, I’m not saying much after that.”


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