The Grandmaster, Part II

Parker, The Player


As a kid growing up on the outskirts of Boston, Jack Parker felt no particular attraction to coaching. In fact, he felt no particular attraction to hockey.

“I always played basketball,” he says. “That was the sport I played the most and still play to this day. I grew up in Somerville, which is a real basketball town. The only reason why I played hockey is because my twin brother played it.”

Despite that lackluster start in the sport, however, Parker was being heavily recruited by two Boston schools by time he was a senior and team MVP at Catholic Memorial High School.

The two schools? Boston University and Boston College.

BU would finish with an 8-16 record that year, its third straight losing season. It would fall far short of qualifying for the eight-team playoffs in the ECAC, the lone Eastern conference of that day. While coach Jack Kelley would eventually become the architect of BU’s first national championship and the last back-to-back titles in the sport, he was then only in his first year.

By contrast, Boston College would finish 22-9, earning the top seed in the ECAC playoffs and a berth in the four-team NCAA tournament. Coach John “Snooks” Kelley was already a legend in that his 27th year, having guided the Eagles to winning seasons all but once since World War II.

It was a no-brainer.

“Even before I got to college, I was kind of anti-BC,” says Parker with a laugh. “My high school coach was a former BU captain, Joe Quinn. And my best friend was his younger brother, Jimmy Quinn, and he was already here at BU. So it was pretty easy to choose this place.”

By the time that Parker first stepped on the ice as a varsity player — freshmen were ineligible according to NCAA rules then in force — Jack Kelley had already transformed the Terriers into a national power. In Parker’s three years (1965-68), they recorded a 72-22-4 record, won all three Beanpot championships, advanced to the ECAC semifinals each time and qualified for the NCAA tournament twice, no mean feat in the days of a four-team draw.

If not for a goaltender named Ken Dryden, Parker might well have pocketed his first national championship in 1967 as a player. Instead, Cornell defeated the Terriers in both the ECAC title contest and the NCAA championship game, led by Dryden, whose 1.46 goals-against average and .945 save percentage would earn him the first of three consecutive All-America honors.

“I always thought that the ECAC hockey league of old was the best hockey league you could play in because there were 17 teams in the league and only eight of them made the playoffs,” says Parker. “So the whole regular season was unbelievably competitive. And when you made the playoffs, it was single elimination all the way through.

“The ECAC championship was a premier event. Nobody was drawing like the ECAC was drawing. We’d go to the ECAC championship at the Boston Garden and we’d have 13,909 [a sellout]. Then we’d go to the national championship the next week in front of sometimes 2,000 people.

“When I was a junior, for example, we played Cornell in the ECAC final. They had Kenny Dryden and a great team and we had Herb Wakabayashi and a great team. We were the two premier teams in the nation actually.

“It was absolutely mobbed. You couldn’t get a ticket. It was one of the biggest crowds they ever had at the Garden, including Celtics playoffs or Bruins. From ’65 on, the Friday night ECAC semifinal round was the hottest ticket in college hockey.”

Despite the adrenaline rush of that environment, Parker still expected to walk away from it when his collegiate playing days were over. His last hurrah as a Terrier would be captaining the 1967-68 club.

“I had no intention of coaching when I was a player,” he says. “When I was in college, I thought I’d be a banker, to tell the truth. I was a finance major in the business school and I went into that for one summer.”

One summer, however, was enough to tell him that banking wasn’t what he wanted to do. Parker missed hockey. Since he knew he wasn’t going to be a pro player, he became the assistant coach at Medford High School and also refereed countless games throughout the Bobby Orr-obsessed Hub.

A year later, he was back at Boston University, enrolled as a graduate student and serving as an assistant coach under Kelley, a position he held for three years.

Jack Kelley, The Mentor

To anyone who has followed BU hockey for the past 20 years, “Jack” is instantly identified as Parker. It’s unnecessary to add a last name.

But throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, it was another “Jack” — Jack Kelley — who was consistently putting the Terrier program on the national stage.

“He was a great coach and a real competitor and motivator who believed in work ethic and really getting teams in great shape,” says Parker. “I learned a lot playing for Jack and I learned a lot more when I was assistant coach for him.

“I learned about how to prepare a team week-to-week during the course of the season. How to get a team geared up for certain games. How to segment the season. When you feel like the guys are getting a little tired, you have to back off of them. [At other times,] go a little harder because it’s a good time to get them really jacked up.

“But more than anything else, I learned that systems are important and it was important to make sure that everybody did what was asked of them. He was a real disciplinarian that way. Hey, you don’t want to do it my way? Then see ya.”

Kelley guided BU to its first national championship in 1971, defeating Minnesota, 4-2, in the title game. The following year, the Terriers won it all again, this time with a 4-0 shutout over Cornell.

It was far from the first time that teams had won back-to-back championships. Michigan won consecutive titles from 1951 through 1953 and, after a one year interruption, in 1955 and 1956. Denver repeated in 1960 and 1961 and then again in 1968 and 1969. But with the sport’s changing landscape, BU’s feat in 1971 and 1972 hasn’t since been duplicated.

“I thought we’d do it a couple of times, to tell the truth,” says Parker. “But a lot of things have happened since then. It was just at that time that college hockey players started to leave to go to pro hockey.

“The WHA [World Hockey Association] came into existence, Jack Kelley left BU to go coach the Whalers and there were a lot of opportunities for a lot more players. The pros started looking at college players and BU had their first experience of losing people [early] to the pros.”

Ron Anderson, All-ECAC defenseman Ric Jordan and two-time All-America defenseman Bob Brown would have returned in 1973 as seniors who had gone two-for-two in national championship runs in their first two years of eligibility. Instead, all three signed pro contracts.

“From then on,” says Parker, “it’s been one of the reasons it’s difficult [to repeat]. When you have that much success, guys leave early. We might have had an easier time to win a back-to-back national championship if guys had stuck around. But if you lose two or three individuals who got you there the first year, it’s hard to get back the second year.

“Plus the fact that there are so many more good programs now. There are so many more competitive programs because the coaching is so much better and the recruiting is [so high caliber].”

Hitting The Ground Running

When Kelley left, Leon Abbott took over as head coach and Parker became the full-time assistant in charge of recruiting and the “B” team. Abbott’s tenure, however, proved to be short-lived.

Just a year and a half after taking over the reins from Kelley, Abbott was fired by the school for recruiting violations in the aftermath of a feud with the NCAA over whether Canadian players who had received room-and-board were eligible.

In truth, a premier program that was little more than a year removed from back-to-back national championships would have typically sought a head coach with a lot more experience than Parker. In mid-season, however, BU found itself with limited options and on Dec. 21, 1973, elevated the then-untested assistant to the top spot.

“Leon was a real good guy,” says Parker. “I was really fortunate at somebody else’s misfortune.”

Suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Parker attempted to mold his former mentor’s ideas into his own personality.

“I’d say that 90 percent of [what I did] was copying Jack Kelley,” says Parker. “The systems and style [we played] were all just a continuation of what Jack had done. [But] how we taught it, how we approached it and how we related it to the players was completely different.

“I have a completely different personality than Jack’s. I couldn’t be as stern, as hard-nosed. He was almost far away from the players. He never talked to them or had much to do with them. I was — and still am to this day — much more of a screw-around-with-the-players-on-the-ice type of guy. He never did any of that.

“So it was certainly a different approach. Our substance was the same. Our form was different.”

It worked. Parker hit the ground running, winning four straight ECAC titles. The Terriers also earned five consecutive NCAA tournament berths, an impressive feat in an era when initially only four, and then six, teams received invitations.

Following the 1974-75 season, his first full year at the helm, Parker was honored by his peers with the Spencer T. Penrose Award as the Division I Coach of the Year. For a 30-year old coach with a short resume, the award might have been expected to be confirmation that he had arrived. Not so with Parker.

“I was an egomaniac with an inferiority complex so when I got the job I knew we were going to do a real good job,” he says. “We won the ECACs that first year and, in fact, won the tournament four years in a row. So, I was thinking, ‘Hey, this is easy.’

“But I really never thought much about [winning the Penrose]. I didn’t think I deserved it. There were three coaches that I know should have gotten ahead of me that year. But I think that happens a lot. People wind up — after they’ve been coaching for a long time — getting some friends and some enemies in the coaching ranks.

“I was the new guy on the block. Hey, I’ll vote for him instead of the guy who should get it. I truly believed that’s what happened. The guy who won the national championship that year happened to be at Michigan Tech and was one of the all-time great coaches, John MacInnes. He should have been Coach of the Year that year.”

Parker won the award again in 1978 when the Terriers won their first national championship under him, but hasn’t returned to that winner’s circle since.

“I’m sure it happens the other way now,” he says with a perhaps rueful laugh.

The 1978 National Championship

Ironically, the Terriers hit pay dirt in the 1978 NCAA tournament after failing to win the ECACs for the first time under Parker.

“We started the season losing an exhibition game at RPI,” he says. “We had a really young team with a lot of freshmen and sophomores. I was really worried about how good a team we were going to be.

“Then,” says Parker with a laugh, “we won 21 games in a row.”

BU roared through the regular season unscathed except for a loss that Parker still remembers as coming “down at Yale on a Saturday afternoon.”

Entering the ECAC playoffs with a 25-1 record, BU got past New Hampshire in the first round, 6-5 in overtime, only to be upset by Providence in the semifinals. Boston College then defeated the Friars to take one NCAA berth. The other one was up in the air.

Providence staked its claim as the ECAC tournament runner-up. It’s 17-14-2 record, however, threatened to be the weakest such mark to gain entry to the NCAAs from the league since its formation in 1962. Boston University, on the other hand, could claim the country’s best record at 27-2, albeit as the third-place finisher in the ECACs.

The previous year, the selection committee had begun the practice of a Western play-in game between the winner of the fledgling CCHA and the WCHA runner-up. It had the effect of translating what had always been a four-team tournament into a five-team one.

This time, the committee decided that adding an Eastern play-in game — in effect opting for a six-team draw — was the best solution. Providence would host BU with the winner advancing to a semifinal matchup against Wisconsin.

Having dodged a bullet, the Terriers defeated PC, 5-3, to set the stage for a clash with the Badgers.

“They were the defending champs and had a great team,” says Parker. “Bob Johnson was a great coach. We beat them in what I think was one of the best college hockey games we ever played.”

BU then took the NCAA title with a 5-3 win over none other than Boston College.

“Winning the national championship by beating the defending champion and then by beating your archrival in the final was a pretty nice weekend,” says Parker.

The 1980 Miracle On Ice

In 1979-80, Boston University fell to 11-17, its first losing season under Parker. Nonetheless, the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s Miracle on Ice gold medal at Lake Placid took away a good measure of the sting. Former Terriers Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, Jack O’Callahan and Dave Silk helped captivate even those Americans who, in the words of broadcaster Al Michaels, didn’t “know a clothesline from a blue line.”

“I can remember people saying, ‘Geez, you had a tough year’ and I’d say, ‘What do you mean, a tough year? We won the Olympics, didn’t we?'” says Parker. “There were a lot of Minnesotans on that team and there were a lot of great college hockey players on that team. But for some reason, since there were only four Eastern guys on the team and they happened to all be from BU, it was quite a story.

“It was almost like it was BU’s team in a lot of ways. Eruzione was the captain and Craig was the star. It was mind-boggling.

“The great part about it was that none of the players on that team knew how the country was reacting. They were holed up in Lake Placid. They didn’t know what was going on [outside]. People were really getting involved with hockey. There were people in Malibu with TVs on at the beach watching the game. I had a lot of pride for my guys, but a lot of pride for the sport, too.”

The astounding success of the collegiate-based Olympic team fueled what many consider to be college hockey’s Golden Age.

“I don’t think there’s any question that it helped hockey everywhere at every level in the United States,” says Parker. “People were real enamored with the sport. There were an awful lot of people who got to know ice hockey for the first time. It really jacked up hockey all through New England and the Eastern states, that’s for sure.

“The fact that those guys, for the most part, were college hockey players had a lot of kids, Canadians especially, thinking ‘I might as well go play college hockey.’ The ’80s and ’90s were great years for college hockey, no question about it, because of what happened.”

The Sub-Par ’80s

Unfortunately, the 1979-80 season proved to be more omen than fluke. Four of the five losing seasons in Parker’s career would come in the ’80s. After three national championships and seven NCAA appearances in the ’70s, the Terriers would be invited only twice during the next decade despite the tournament’s expansion to eight teams in 1981 and then to 12 in 1988. Their two appearances — in 1984 and 1986 — both ended in first-round defeats.

Of course, the ’80s weren’t a total loss. It was just that the ’70s had featured a virtually uninterrupted sequence of exceptional seasons. If one year the Terriers didn’t scale Mount Everest, they at least conquered the neighboring peaks of Pumori or Ama Dablam.

The ’80s, however, included deep valleys both as the decade opened and as it closed. Only from 1984 through 1986 did the Terriers reach their accustomed heights.

Among other factors, BU didn’t adjust smoothly to two major NCAA changes early in the decade. Scholarships were reduced to 20 per team, magnifying any recruiting mistakes. And the introduction of the face mask altered how the game itself was played.

“Our recruiting fell off a little bit and I think we really got fooled by the face mask and how much more difficult it was to play with a face mask on,” says Parker. “The game changed quite drastically because of the face mask.

“I was also a little stubborn in how we should play, stubborn in how we were approaching the game. I was thinking, this always works; why not keep this up? I was stubborn about thinking that there’s only one way to do it when, in reality, there are a lot of ways to do it. That held true with recruiting, too. So we had to re-evaluate what we were doing.

“All in all, we just fell off our game as far as our ability to coach around here for awhile and recruit around here. When you lose it, it’s sometimes hard to get it back again. It took awhile to get everybody jacked up about BU hockey again.

“We did that in the mid-’80s and then we lost a lot of guys to the ’88 Olympic team. That hurt us the next couple of years. It took us a little time to recover from that. But once we got back going again in the ’90s, it seemed to snowball again.

“Sometimes you get one big recruit in like a [Shawn] McEachern or [Tony] Amonte and all of a sudden everybody wants to come to your school. That’s exactly what happened to us.

“I think we also realized in the late ’80s that we had to do things differently as far as off-ice training was concerned. We had to demand more of the players off the ice and less of the players on the ice. [Strength and conditioning coach] Mike Boyle convinced us to take a different approach to training so it wouldn’t be as grueling on the ice. It would be more profitable because he could get more done off the ice.

“That catapulted us in the ’90s, no question about it. Not only did we make our players better because of that, but we got better players to come here because they wanted to work with Mike Boyle.

The ’90s

The Terriers proved to be every bit as consistently successful in the ’90s as they were inconsistent the decade before. They won eight Beanpots, five regular season Hockey East crowns, four league tournaments and earned NCAA berths in every season except 1999.

They got the ball rolling in 1990, advancing to the Frozen Four, but really hit their stride in 1991. That year’s triple-overtime loss in the national championship game to Northern Michigan, 8-7, remains as one of the sport’s high-water marks, albeit an agonizing one for BU fans.

“About two years ago, I saw Tony Amonte at T. Anthony’s restaurant,” says Parker. “The Black Hawks were in town to play the Bruins the next day, so he came up to his old stomping grounds to say hello. I had just been reading the Globe sports page and it was one of those days where they have all the scorers of every team in the NHL.

“Amonte was leading Chicago by a mile in scoring. Keith Tkachuk was leading Phoenix by a mile in scoring. And Shawn McEachern was the second-leading scorer for Ottawa.

“In walks Amonte and I said, ‘Tony, here you’re the number one guy. Tkachuk’s the number one guy. McEachern’s the number-two guy. How did we not win the national championship?’

“He just looked at me and said, ‘Hey coach, offense wasn’t our problem. We got seven. We just couldn’t keep it up.’

“I would say that that was one of the most exciting teams I’ve ever coached and without question, the most talented team we ever had.

“That was the heyday of college hockey and the apex of college hockey as far as talent across the nation, especially in Hockey East. We’d go out for the Beanpot final and put McEachern, Amonte, Tkachuk, [Peter] Ahola and [Scott] Lachance for our starting five and BC would counter with [Steve] Heinze, [Marty] McInnis, [David] Emma and [Scott] LaGrand in the cage. Maine had great players. It was a great league.

“I think one of the greatest college teams ever assembled was the team that Northern Michigan had that year. They had a lot of talented players who are still in the NHL to this day.”

In a game that would frequently be called the greatest ever, the Terriers jumped out to a 3-0 first-period lead, surrendered five unanswered goals in the second period and a sixth early in the third, only to storm back on goals by Amonte, McEachern and David Sacco to tie the game at 7-7 with just 39 seconds remaining.

With one second left in regulation and Amonte swooping in on a breakaway, poised to complete the comeback in the most dramatic of ways, he shot the puck into goaltender Billy Pye’s glove.

In the first overtime, the teams combined to hit five posts. In the third overtime, Northern Michigan’s Darryl Plandowski — the man assigned to shadow Amonte — scored the game-winner.

“It was an emotional, unbelievably weird game up and down,” says Parker. “It looked like it was in the bag one way or the other all the time and then all of a sudden it was in overtime. The overtime was so exciting because it wasn’t watch-your-step-here-better-not-make-a-mistake. It was still wide open, except there were pipes being hit instead of goals being scored.”

BU’s next trip to the title game proved even more agonizing, but for a different reason. In 1994, the Terriers defeated first Wisconsin and then Minnesota by 4-1 scores to face Lake Superior State in the finals. The Lakers, on the other hand, were facing BU only after having survived a tightrope walk of three straight overtime games. The odds seemed to be in BU’s favor. Instead, the Lakers trounced the Terriers, 9-1.

“We played six of the greatest games I can ever remember BU playing in a row to get to the national final game and then went out and absolutely stunk the house out against Lake State,” says Parker. “They played great. There was a lopsided score because they played so well and we played so poorly.”

That embarrassing loss fueled the Terriers’ successful run to the national championship one year later. In the 1995 NCAA tournament, BU left no doubt, first gaining revenge on the Lakers, 6-2, and then dominating Minnesota, 7-3, and Maine, 6-2.

“I don’t think there’s any question that ’95 was much more gratifying [than any other title year] for a couple of reasons,” says Parker. “One, it had been along time since we’d won it. We did it in ’78 and now it’s 17 years later. We’d been knocking on the door. We had some good years. We had a real good run in the early ’90s and we didn’t win it.

“But the major difference in ’95 was the fact that it was almost a reprieve. The whole year was spent trying to get back to the final game because of the embarrassment of the way we played in the game in ’94. We’d been tired of answering the questions all summer. ‘What happened? What could have happened? What did you guys do? What were you thinking of?’

“So I think it was more of a get-the-monkey-off-your-back type of year. It wasn’t so much that we won and we were excited. It wasn’t elation as much as it was, ‘Okay, we got that done. Are you happy now?'”

The following season, the Terriers again advanced to the Frozen Four and then one year later, in ’97, toppled a supposedly unbeatable Michigan team to reach the title game once again. But that was as close as they would get. Even so, they would still end the decade with not only nine NCAA appearances, but seven Frozen Fours.

Flirting With Leaving

In 1997, the Boston Bruins attempted to lure Parker away from Boston University. They offered a huge contract and a new challenge while still being able to stay in his hometown. It almost worked.

“Once in awhile I think I would have liked to have seen that first paycheck,” says Parker with a laugh. He then adds, “I never regretted the whole situation because it was such a nice process to go through. I had more respect for [Bruins GM] Harry Sinden as a person because I got to know him more than just as a hockey guy. It was a terrific experience for me and as it was going along, I really thought I was going to leave.

“[But] I ran into a former player, Kaj Linna, who was a great defenseman on our team in the ’90s and the national championship game in ’95. He had just come back from Helsinki and stopped by and wanted to say hello.

“It was about three days before I had to make a decision. I thought to myself that what I like about [coaching at BU] more than anything else is seeing former players. I don’t think in the pros it happens too often.”

So Parker turned the Bruins down, delighting Terrier fans everywhere.

What’s Next?

Does the fire dim a little after 600-plus wins, two national championships, nine league titles and countless honors? How can a coach who has been doing the same thing for 27 years find new challenges to keep him going?

“It’s twofold and they’re related,” says Parker. “One, it’s a different team every year, so it’s not like you have the same group all the time. And two, since it’s a different team, it’s different kids who want to win something. You want them to have the success that previous players have had here or at least have a chance at that success.

“That makes it new. It’s like teaching second grade. You’re teaching the same stuff, but it’s a new class every year.”

Which is not to say that it’s all for the players.

“We’re competitive as a staff,” he says. “We want to do well this year because this is the year we’re doing it. You never know what’s going to happen in the future and the last 27 years don’t count.”

The last 27 years don’t count? A few people might disagree with that.