Boston College had just defeated UMass-Lowell, 6-1, to give coach Jerry York his 600th win. That milestone had been reached by only five other coaches in the history of college hockey: Ron Mason, Bob Peters, Len Ceglarski, Jeff Sauer and Jack Parker.
The magnitude of the achievement didn’t hit him when the buzzer sounded nor did it during the post-game press conference. But it finally did aboard the bus riding back to Chestnut Hill.
“I was sitting by myself up front and was just thinking what that 600 entailed,” says York. “There were an awful lot of recruiting trips, a lot of behind the scenes obstacles that you had to dodge and move through.
“They didn’t come easy. It was a hard process, but a very enjoyable process.”
His first win came 28 years earlier, on November 10, 1972. In many ways, the world looked much different then, both inside the sphere of college hockey and out.
Richard Nixon had just trounced George McGovern in the Electoral College, 521-17, to presumably kick off a second four-year term. The full extent of Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War and the significance of Iran and Iraq were not yet in sight.
Disco, rap and hip-hop had not yet appeared; not only had 8-track tapes not yet disappeared, they hadn’t even peaked in their popularity. The VCR as we know it and the Walkman had not yet been invented. CDs were merely two letters in the alphabet. There were no personal computers, no Internet.
Gladys Knight and the Pips had not yet ridden that “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Mick Jagger was still in his twenties. Elvis had not yet left the building.
Dr. J had not yet turned basketball into a game played above the rim. The Super Bowl still had easily understandable Roman numerals — VI. Free agency had not yet hit baseball. Tiger Woods hadn’t been born. Bobby Orr owned Boston.
Paul Henderson had just scored the goal heard all across Canada. One year earlier, Ken Dryden had proven that a collegiate hockey product could be the NHL’s playoff MVP.
The NCAA tournament consisted of only a four-team draw that rarely drew more than 6,000 spectators. The CCHA had just celebrated its first birthday. The split of Hockey East from the ECAC was more than a decade away.
November 10, 1972 — the night of York’s first win — and Nov. 4, 2000 — the night of his 600th — seem light years apart in almost every conceivable way.
Yet despite the vastly different landscapes through almost three decades of coaching, York has primarily emphasized a few immutable absolutes in his approach to leading a team.
“The same principles back in the seventies when we started are still true today,” he says. “The players want discipline. They want to be involved in a situation where they know there’s a code of conduct. They want to be pushed as hard as they possibly can, both for individual success and for team success.
“A lot of it is the same and a lot of it is a little bit different, but the basic core values of being the coach of a college team essentially haven’t wavered very much. The hair cuts may be shorter or the style of clothes or uniforms we wear are a little bit different, but I think everything is on those same railroad tracks: the discipline, making sure your star player has team success on his mind and helping the role player feel that he’s part of the success.”
York has coached many such star players who have had team success on their minds. As the bus tires hummed along on the route back to Boston College, his thoughts turned to them and the many other captains he’s led in his 28-plus years.
At Clarkson, where it all began, he coached what is likely his greatest player, Dave Taylor. Taylor would score 108 points as a senior and then move on to the NHL where he would total 1069 points in 17 years, 35th among all-time scorers and sixth among right wings.
York’s seven years at Clarkson also saw goaltender Brian Shields and defenseman Bill Blackwood named as All-Americans twice. In 1977, York was honored as the Division I Coach of the Year, winning the Spencer T. Penrose Award. He would laugh and, befitting his modesty, say, “I’ve called it the Dave Taylor Coach’s Award because he was such an outstanding student-athlete. Coaching became a lot easier with that type of player.”
York left Clarkson in 1979 for Bowling Green, where he won an NCAA Championship five years later. In his 15 seasons at the Falcons’ helm he coached 12 All-Americans: George McPhee, Brian MacLellan, Brian Hills, Dan Kane, Garry Galley, Gary Kruzich, Jamie Wansbrough, (current BC assistant coach) Scott Paluch, Nelson Emerson, Greg Parks, Rob Blake and Jeff Wells.
McPhee, who like Taylor is now an NHL general manager, won the Hobey Baker Award in 1982, only the second year of its existence. Emerson was a three-time finalist, Hills a two-time finalist and Blake a one-timer. Blake would go on to win the NHL’s Norris Trophy as its top defenseman in 1998.
York returned to his alma mater, Boston College, in 1994. The perennial powerhouse had fallen into disrepair, but in short order his stream of All-Americans continued there: Marty Reasoner, Brian Gionta, Mike Mottau and Jeff Farkas.
Last year Mottau became York’s second Hobey winner, the first defenseman so honored in 16 years. Farkas and Gionta made it a BC trio of finalists, only the second time in the award’s history that a team could make that claim. Gionta seems likely to become a three-time finalist later this year.
Two Hobey Baker winners, five more finalists and 19 All-Americans. An awful lot of recruiting trips, indeed.
With such an impressive stream of stars, a casual observer might think that coaching success begins and ends with recruiting the best talent and then saying, “Change ’em up!” on the bench every 45 seconds or so.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. To talk to York’s players is to hear continuous words of praise of how he has improved their games. Perhaps none says it better than his all-time best.
“When I left Levack, Ontario, to go play at Clarkson,” says Taylor, “I had not been drafted by a [major] junior club and I don’t think anyone had given me much of [a chance] to go on and play in the NHL, let alone play for 17 years with the LA Kings. But those four years under Jerry York made it possible for me to go to the NHL. Certainly my skill development, my confidence, and the overall growing-up process that you go through in college — a lot of that I attribute to Jerry York. He’s certainly had a huge impact on my career.”
Beyond the constant striving to refine each player’s talents and to make sure that the combinations mesh seamlessly, there are any number of behind the scenes concerns that a coach must address. It’s natural to assume that rebuilding a team is one big headache while leading an NCAA tournament-bound club is a parade down Easy Street, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
“It’s never easy, that’s for sure,” says York with a laugh. “Each day there are brush fires that have to be put out, whether it’s a fourth-line player or a backup goaltender or whether it’s your top, top player. Whether it’s an injury situation or an ice time situation. There’s always something that keeps you right on your toes.”
As the bus rolled on, York continued to leaf silently through the scrapbook of the mind. The three schools were quite different. Boston College lay on the outskirts of a great city; the Clarkson and Bowling Green campuses, where he accumulated most of his first 500 wins, were at least by comparison located out in the hinterlands. Clarkson consisted of only two or three thousand students. Bowling Green numbered 18,000. BC fit comfortably in between with an undergraduate population of eight or nine thousand.
“The campuses are different and maybe the general student bodies are different, but the hockey kids come from the same type of backgrounds,” says York. “I see a lot of the same qualities within the hockey players.
“Each school has its own identity. But at all three I’ve tried to establish a hockey culture where winning is important. Hard work is important. Where we’re striving to be the very best we can. I think we’ve established that at all three schools.”
Elsewhere in the BC bus sat his assistant coaches: Jim Logue, Paluch and Mike Cavanaugh. The latter two followed York from Bowling Green; Logue, on the other hand, preceded him at BC. The trio are the latest in a legacy of assistants upon whom York has bestowed what he considers his proudest accomplishment.
“It would probably be,” says York, “that all my assistants could have that feeling, ‘Hey, I’ve helped. I’ve been a major, major part of this thing.’
“That’s the one unique thing I’m really proud of. I think I’ve tried to include our assistants. They have a real ownership with our programs.”
The bus pulled onto the BC campus and it was time for York to close the mental scrapbook.
— UNH coach Dick Umile, on BC’s Jerry York
“It was only 40 minutes,” he says, “but it seemed that I touched on a lot of things without doing any talking.”
He stepped off the bus. The pleasant journey back in time was over. The present and the future lay ahead.
This season could be a special one for York and Boston College. He will likely add to his list of All-Americans and Hobey Baker finalists. He may also add another Hobey winner or perhaps another Coach of the Year honor. Or best of all, another national championship.
Whatever the outcome, he sees no end in sight to his days as coach of the Eagles.
“I’d like to coach first and foremost as long as Boston College wants me to stay here,” he says. “I really enjoy it.
“I’ve never really looked at when I want to stop. I just go day by day here. I’ve never really thought, ‘If I get to be 60 or 65 or 59, then I’ll quit.’ I’ve never really thought too much about that. I have my health and I feel good.
“I’m a coach. That’s what I do.”