This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 19, 2004

Why Jerry York Should Be Coach Of The Year

Boston College coach Jerry York entered this season with a 201-128-27 record at the school, three Hockey East tournament championships, five NCAA tournament berths, four consecutive Frozen Four appearances (1998-2001), three NCAA championship game appearances and a national title in 2001.

But not a single Hockey East Coach of the Year Award.


In fairness, there has always been some reasonable argument for another coach. In all but two of BC’s best seasons, some other team finished first in the standings. And regular season performance carries the greatest weight since the award is presented on the eve of the semifinals at the FleetCenter.

“I vote, almost always, for the person who wins the [regular season] championship,” Merrimack coach Chris Serino says. “It’s probably not the right way to do it, but our league championship, no matter how good you are, is so difficult to win. So that’s how I vote.”

BC’s first regular season title under York came in 2001, a year in which the Eagles won everything in sight. They won Hockey East’s regular season and tournament championships before going on to win the big enchilada in Albany, N.Y. Oh yes, they also won the Beanpot.

Despite that dominance, however, the Coach of the Year Award went to Providence’s Paul Pooley. For some very good reasons. Pooley had led a Friar club predicted to finish sixth in the league into a tie with Maine for second place and an eventual loss to BC in the Hockey East championship game.

The argument — and a very good one, but one which has hurt York’s chances year after year — is that BC had been expected to be very good while Providence had not. In finishing first, the Eagles had met expectations while the Friars had greatly exceeded theirs.

A similar argument gave Massachusetts coach Don “Toot” Cahoon the award last year even though BC and New Hampshire finished in a tie for first. Cahoon had taken the perennial doormats and led them to a winning record, a sixth-place finish and a first-ever trip to the FleetCenter. And that had been accomplished with an exceptionally young lineup.

Cahoon’s coaching performance had been spectacular; York’s appeared workmanlike by comparison.

Did Pooley and Cahoon deserve their awards?

Absolutely. But you had to wonder if York would ever get his due.

The fact that he and his staff have recruited phenomenal talent to the Heights has often overshadowed his on-ice coaching. But the BC recruiting juggernaut had fallen into disrepair prior to York’s arrival; he jumpstarted it with the recruiting of Marty Reasoner. Since then, he and his staff have brought in exceptional talents year in and year out.

But the job hasn’t stopped there. The sporting landscape is littered with the wreckages of teams that looked great on paper only to fizzle or to crash and burn.

“It’s one thing to have a great lineup and it’s another thing to screw up a great lineup,” Serino says. “He does a good job with the players he has. Some guys may get great players, but not do a good job with them.

“He’s the right guy for that job there. They have a huge advantage over most of the teams in recruiting with the big-time football and the big-time basketball. But I think Jerry just brings such a calm over that program. You never see him too high or too low. That rubs off on his players. They play very consistently throughout the year.”

The Eagles have certainly done that. With a 23-3-4 overall record and 14-1-3 in Hockey East, they’ve lost only a single game since October. And as if to underline the point, that loss was a contest that York missed due to illness. Such an achievement, even with terrific talent, is no mean feat.

“When I was at Niagara, we were 15-0-2 in the first year of College Hockey America,” Massachusetts-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald says. “we obviously had a good team, but to keep a team at a high level for the entire year isn’t an easy thing to do. That’s a real testimony to a great coaching staff.”

With no other program likely to finish leaps and bounds above its preseason prediction the way that Providence and UMass did in 2001 and 2003, respectively, York would seem to be the obvious choice to win the award. Consistent excellence should finally be rewarded.

Says MacDonald, “It’s a slam dunk.”

Hanging Tough

In the preseason, they were picked to finish last in Hockey East by both the coaches and yours truly; since then, it’s been a tough label to shake.

The Merrimack Warriors have tied Boston College, the number one team in the country, not just once but twice. They didn’t just sneak past New Hampshire, they won in a rout, 7-2. After defeating Boston University last Thursday, 3-1, they are now tied for sixth place.

And yet many have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Namely, for the teams below Merrimack to use the games they hold in hand to bypass the Warriors. Some USCHO readers have even written to ask when, if ever, this column was going to pick them to win a game.

“It’s the same old thing,” Serino says. “Everyone assumes that we’re going to be last. I guess our players got a little upset with even the Hockey East things written about us. No matter where we stood in the standings, it was a battle between us and somebody else for the last spot. I think we’ve used that as a little bit of motivation and hopefully we can continue to do that.”

By contrast, everyone expects Boston University to make a late-season run despite its eighth place standing because, well, BU is BU and BU doesn’t finish in eighth or, heaven forbid, ninth.

“With them, it’s like they’re going to be in [the mix], it’s just a matter of time and where they’re going to be in,” Serino says. “With us, it’s always the same. Hopefully we can change that attitude in the league.”

Perhaps a history lesson is in order for all the doubters, this writer included. Even though the Warriors have been picked to finish last with an almost knee-jerk regularity, they’ve missed the playoffs only once. And that sole blemish dates all the way back to 1996.

And while their lineup has been depleted by injuries, leaving them without a high-powered offense while relying on freshman goaltender Jim Healey — all reasons why this writer had been predicting losses — they’re getting healthy, they’re getting good defense with strong goaltending and they’re getting enough offense to win games. As evidenced by the win over BU.

What’s more, they’ve never had the self-image of a last-place team.

“We believe in ourselves,” Serino says. “We’ve played pretty consistently throughout the year in Hockey East. I know our kids don’t believe [the negative expectations] and that’s all I really care about. As long as they believe we can win and that we can play with anybody, that’s what we feel is important.”

With Merrimack’s four remaining games coming against Northeastern, Providence (two) and Lowell — all teams in the lower half of the league’s standings — the Warriors have reason to be looking up and not down.

“Anything can change, but our thinking right now is that we have a legitimate shot at fifth place,” Serino says. “We have two games with [fifth-place] Providence and we think that we’ve got a shot if we can continue to play well. That’s what we’re shooting for.

“The fact of the matter is that wins and losses each week change the standings like crazy. That’s how tight it is.”

Getting healthy will be a big factor in this stretch drive.

“We had a stretch there where we played six or eight games in 12 days and that really took a toll on us,” Serino says. “We’re playing with basically nine forwards and six defensemen. That’s all we have healthy. It’s not like I’ve got guys waiting in the wings. For the last month, I’ve had every person dressed I could possibly dress. We didn’t have a guy sitting out who could play.

“But now it’s starting to steady up a bit and we’re starting to get healthy. Hopefully, we’re going to get Matt Johnson back real quick. we haven’t had him for three months and he makes a big difference on our top line. That would really help us coming down the stretch.”

Goaltending, once the biggest question mark, has become a strength as Healey has taken over the number one job while becoming a fixture in the Hockey East weekly awards.

“This league often boils down to goaltending,” Serino says. “If you get it, you have a chance to win. If you don’t get it, you have no chance to win. Jimmy Healey has played pretty well. He’s been very steady over the last five or six games.”

Without question, the remaining four contests all hold immense importance. Since they’re all against the same teams Merrimack is jockeying with for playoff position, they become, in effect, four-point games.

“The key is going to be consistency,” Serino says. “Over the last couple of weeks, we played and we competed hard against BC; we played and we competed hard against BU. If we can keep that same consistency and get goaltending, then I think we’re going to be okay.”

Bouncing Back

When asked how he’s doing, Blaise MacDonald exudes enthusiasm. “Marvelous! Undefeated last week in Hockey East. You don’t do that too often.”

A pair of ties with nationally ranked New Hampshire will do that for a coach.

It’s been a roller coaster month for the River Hawks. On Jan. 30, they were riding high, walking into the locker room after a win over Boston University lifted their league record to 8-4-1. Then came the announcement of five forfeits, three in Hockey East games, due to the use of an ineligible player. The playoff home ice caliber record of 8-4-1 became 5-7-1.

In the next three games, two against Providence and one against Northeastern, Lowell mustered only a single point.

It had MacDonald saying, “To use a Herb Brooks quote, ‘We’re playing worse and worse every game, and right now we’re playing like it’s next year.'”

Asked if the forfeits had taken the wind out of the River Hawk sails, MacDonald adopts a mock lecturing tone and says, “You know that we don’t allow ourselves to think that way. We don’t want to have any crutches to lean on.”

True, but you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out that the administrative foul-up had sucked energy out of the league’s most surprising team, thereby costing it even more than the original forfeits.

Based on the performances against UNH, however, that’s all ancient history. Lowell is back on track.

“The way we played against Providence, I wasn’t sure we were ever going to be able to breathe again,” MacDonald says. “But we played [against UNH] well enough in both those games. I was really happy with the intensity and how we handled the pressure toward the end of each game and in overtime. That was good for a young team.”

Which doesn’t mean it gets any easier. With the two UNH games behind the River Hawks, they now face two-game sets with number one ranked Boston College and number three Maine.

“Two with UNH, two with BC and two with Maine,” MacDonald says. “Can I have some Advil please?

“I’m looking at BC and I haven’t seen a team as good as this team since the ’93 Maine team. They’re flawless. And I’m looking at tape without 22 in there.”

Number 22, of course, being Ben Eaves.

It’s a stiff challenge, but one that this season’s history has indicated Lowell might well be up for.

A Great Milestone

Congratulations to the entire UMass program for recording its first hockey sellout of the Mullins Center. The stands were packed for last weekend’s battle with Boston College.

As noted earlier this year, one of the major hurdles for the Minutemen was to fill that presumably too-large building.

A presumption that may be changing.

Trivia Contest

Last week’s question asked what was the only team to score four or more goals in its last four meetings against UNH’s Mike Ayers? The answer was Lowell, although Ayers ended that streak this past weekend.

(That trivia tidbit came courtesy of UML Hockey Sports Information Director Dan Fisher. Duty compels me to add that when it comes to poker, “Fish” is an idiot savant still searching for his savant.)

The first to answer correctly was Chad Matthews, whose cheer is:

“GO UNH!! GO Cats!! THREE-PEAT at the FLEET!!!!!!!!!! Go! Fight! Win”

This week’s question comes from Kevin Yetman (aka nanookfan) and is based on facts as they stood going into last weekend and does not include exhibitions or the forfeiting of games by Lowell. What three Division I teams, one in Hockey East, had not won without scoring first and what one D-I school had not lost when it did score first? Email my trivia account with the four teams. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.

For providing this interesting piece of trivia, Kevin earns the right to the following cheer:

“Let’s go Merrimack! I hope to see you at the FleetCenter this year!”

And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…

  • It wasn’t my money, but I’d have done the $4-6 million per year plus Nomar, Manny, Scott Williamson and a minor prospect for A-Rod and Magglio Ordonez. I would have regretted losing Nomar, but how could that money difference have not been worth the upgrade from Manny to A-Rod?
  • That said, I remain in a mode of In-Theo-We-Trust.
  • For now.
  • Perhaps the most comforting item about the A-Rod deal came from ESPN’s Jayson Stark, who noted that the superstar-we-almost-got won’t have the comfortable confines of Arlington Stadium any more to give a boost to his stats. To whit: “[Alfonso] Soriano has more road homers (45 to 44), many more runs scored (133 to 108) and a much higher batting average (.311 to .279) than A-Rod over the last two seasons. Hmmmm.”
  • Yeah, that might be whistling past the graveyard. We’ll see. But at least The Empire added the best offensive player and not the best pitcher. I’m not all that sure that the Yanks’ starting rotation is the slam dunk that some think it is.
  • I have to wonder, though, if the biggest loser in all of this isn’t the players’ union. Sure, it got what it wanted. No compromising of a contract. But I wonder if this won’t make the owners more willing to shut down for a season, if need be, to fix the ludicrous imbalance of one team spending almost $200 million a year when the second highest team is barely over $120 million. As a Yankees fan said to me the other day, “It’s gotten kind of embarrassing.”
  • And if a New Yorker does want to gloat, just begin the following chant. “J-E-T-S.” Or you can make an equivalent four-letter substitution that begins with “S” and “U.”
  • Onward…
  • My comment about Howard Dean in last week’s column prompted one reader to reply, “C’mon, lay off the Howard Dean stuff and let’s keep it to hockey. If I want to read a political agenda, I can read my own liberal Boston Globe.” To begin with, this segment of the column will, by definition, not be about hockey. So if you only want hockey, stop reading when you get to the “Not That It Has” heading. Second, and more importantly, I never expressed any support at all for Dean’s ideas or candidacy. I may think he was the best candidate or the worst one. Or somewhere in between. (To keep the nasty email volume down, I ain’t saying.) What I am decrying is that sound bites such as Dean’s howl have become more important than ideas and beliefs.
  • Going from the sound-bite-that-buries to one that provides a lift, Bill Clinton’s donning of the sunglasses and playing the saxophone eight years ago was a big hit with the younger demographic, but had nothing to do with his ideas. Had that sound bite instead shown him as a bald guy playing the accordion, it would have buried him among that same demographic. None of which would have had anything to do with his substance or lack thereof.
  • To finish on a high note, let me add to the many other recommendations for “Miracle”. It worked for my nine-year-old niece Kelsey and it worked for this creaking geezer. I have yet to hear of anyone who didn’t love the film. If for some reason you haven’t seen it yet, don’t postpone the pleasure any longer.