It is March, 1971. Harvard University’s hockey team has qualified for the NCAA Tournament, then a modest four-school event, before any of us had ever heard the words “Frozen Four” or “bracket expansion.” The site that year was the Onondaga County War Memorial Coliseum in Syracuse, N.Y.
A few days before the event, a local Boston broadcaster stepped in front of some bright lights and directed a microphone at Harvard’s crusty and wily head coach, Ralph “Cooney” Weiland. A Stanley Cup winner with 300-plus college wins under his belt, Weiland was two games from retirement and his penultimate opponent was the University of Minnesota.
The reporter led off with what he must have considered an innocent enough opening question about the Crimson’s opposition in the semifinals.
“Coach, what do you know about Minnesota?”
Weiland looked into the glare of the lights and with just a trace of a grin said, “Well, it’s cold. And they have lots of lakes. So they must have some good players.” End of interview.
In the days when college hockey benches were manned by guys named “Cooney” and “Snooks” and “Amo,” one didn’t have to go far to find an original. A character. A larger than life figure. But where have they gone?
Many years ago, when the University of Vermont’s Jimmy Cross received an award for his career body of work, he noted that he might have been one of the last “characters” in the game. And that his inclusion in the list was a stretch. The game was changing. And the new breed of coaches, while equally committed and even more prepared, were somehow different than the giants that preceded them.
Last Sunday, The Boston Globe ran a column about Boston University’s Jack Parker, written by nationally known sportswriter Bob Ryan. In it, Parker observes: “The game hasn’t changed much at all … other than the face mask business. But the way we prepare is drastically different. The big changes are outside the boards, so to speak.”
I’ll give him the distinction. And on another occasion, I’d like to suggest that many of the changes “outside the boards” have indeed affected the game played within. But that’s for another time.
For the present, I’m concerned about those changes that have helped create a climate where those “characters” I knew and loved are so few and far between. We have professionalized our sport, and by “professional,” I am not referring to pro hockey or the NHL. I mean kids playing one sport all year, summer leagues designed to market kids, 12-year olds spending $1,000 for their summer off-ice program, sophomores in high school committing to the college of their choice, 190-day seasons ending after baseball’s opening day because we want to insure we get on television, digital editing systems allowing for greater preparation of your team and greater knowledge of your opponent than ever before, and a culture of political correctness that has every coach alerted to the consequences if he yells at Johnny too loudly or asks any freshman to pick up the puck bag after practice.
How much do you think a John Mariucci or a Jack Kelley would enjoy being a head coach today?
I work for the nation’s coaches and have the utmost respect for them. So don’t misconstrue what I’m saying here. They work extremely hard, and have collectively brought professionalism in the positive sense to their jobs. And some of them are even starting to be fairly compensated for what they do.
But most of them are under incredible pressure to win and even greater pressure to dot every “i” and cross every “t” with how they treat each kid, from the time he or she is a recruit to the time they graduate. They have to be teacher, tutor, parent, motivator, disciplinarian, and — given the myriad rules directed at them by school, league, the NCAA and society — they might also benefit from training as a lawyer. I would have loved to witness a compliance officer explaining the latest NCAA Manual to Ned Harkness or Murray Armstrong.
So is it any wonder that those who will allow their full personality to emerge are so hard to find? Thank God for Mike Sertich and Joe Marsh and all the others who have found a way to navigate all the obstacles placed before them and still emerge intact with a sense of humor and a personality reminiscent of the “characters” of yesteryear. But there aren’t many with the job security to take the chance any more. The stakes are higher. The potential fallout too serious.
Fortunately, we have the stories. And from time to time, in this space afforded me by USCHO, I would like to keep some of them alive. Every coach out there has a gem of a story about his or her mentor. Some we could actually print. The “good old days” weren’t always better. But they aren’t coming back, and from time to time, we could use a reminder of another way to do business.
The game was getting late. Brown University’s Jim Fullerton leaned forward to urge his Bears to follow his secret power play strategy practiced earlier in the week.
“Go into ‘The Diamond! Go into ‘The Diamond’,” he yelled from the Meehan Auditorium bench.
Not to be outdone, the great John “Snooks” Kelley of Boston College stood a few feet away on the visiting bench and leapt into action as only the Snooker could. “Lookout for ‘The Diamond,’ he shouted. “Look out for ‘The Diamond!'”
Joe Bertagna is the Executive Director of the American Hockey Coaches Association, the commissioner of the Hockey East Association, and an old goalie.