Retiring BU bench boss’s coaching legacy extends beyond athletes
I covered the BU hockey team for The Daily Free Press at BU for nearly three years, but since graduating BU last May, I’ve only seen Jack Parker outside of a press conference once. It was at this year’s Beanpot luncheon, and he had just finished an interview with NESN. He turned around and saw me, shook my hand and asked for an update on my life post-college. After chatting about life for a bit, I interviewed him quickly for my pre-Beanpot feature. We then got in line for food, and Parker promptly spilled half the gravy on his plate all over the TD Garden Legends Room rug.
It was ironic to see a mess made on that rug by a man who has his name up on the wall in that Legends room alongside many Boston sports greats. He is a man who has guided Boston University to 894 wins, three national championships and an inhuman amount of Beanpot titles. He is a man who has coached 23 Olympians and countless NHL greats. He is a man who has coached 40 different Terrier teams through times of national triumph that filled up trophy cases and also times of shame, when even the national media took note of the team’s irresponsible, and in some cases illegal, behavior.
Jack Parker is the man I used to watch when I was a child in the stands of Walter Brown Arena steam on the bench as he tossed every obscenity he could think of at the referees on the ice (or occasionally at his own players when they were in the penalty box). He is the man I then watched do the exact same thing 15 years later when I was a student reporter in the Agganis Arena press box.
You see, my relationship with BU hockey is quite complicated. For the first 19 years of my life, I was a BU hockey fan. My family’s BU season tickets track all the way back to my grandfather. I grew up with winter weekend nights consisting of T Anthony’s pizza before the game, two periods of hockey in the cement bleachers of Walter Brown and then the third period of hockey in my pajamas in the club room at the rink.
Then, as a sophomore at BU, I began covering BU hockey as a writer for The Daily Free Press. My relationship with BU hockey necessarily changed as I transitioned from fan to impartial reporter.
Through it all, there has been Jack Parker. He has coached BU for 40 seasons now, 17 years longer than I’ve been alive. As a child, he used to amaze me with how red his face could turn. Amazement turned to awe during my first year at BU. I could hardly say “congratulations” when I took a photo with him at the national championship victory parade that spring.
Then I was a sophomore interviewing him for the first time, and I was intimidated as could be. I remember waiting in the upstairs office at Agganis Arena to interview him for a feature I was writing on then-Terrier and current-Ottawa Senator Eric Gryba. On the sideboard next to me were the seven trophies BU hockey won the year before in addition to Matt Gilroy’s Hobey Baker Award and Parker’s most recent Spencer Penrose Memorial Trophy (College Hockey Coach of the Year – he’s won three times). The coffee table in front of me displayed two binders full of the hockey cards of all the players he had coached that went on to play in the NHL.
Jack Parker is known for being tough on players and reporters alike. One of my co-writers at The Daily Free Press once clocked a Parker interview at 19 seconds. One dumb question and my feature was doomed.
But when I walked into Parker’s office that first time, he put me completely at ease. His office wasn’t what I expected. There were framed posters of sailboats resting on the floor against the wall; although Parker had been in that office since 2005, he still had not hung the pictures. A framed jersey he was presented with at his 800th career win also rested on the floor, not the wall. I sat on the couch. He sat in an armchair across from me, crossed his legs, smiled and said, “What d’you got for me?”
The interview and feature went well. He never shut me down or made me feel as if I’d asked a stupid question, and he carefully explained intricacies of Gryba’s defensive game to me as if I were a hockey strategist and not a student reporter. Parker even launched into one of his favorite rants that day, a spiel about how Canadian Major Junior hockey’s recruiting policies are unethical and are destroying college hockey. It’s always a good interview when you can get Parker going on a rant.
I’ve interviewed Parker countless times since that day. For the nearly three years I covered the team, I met with Parker semi-privately every Thursday afternoon to discuss the week’s events and upcoming weekend slate of games. As with all relationships between a beat reporter and a coach, conversations didn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes, after a difficult loss or trying week, he was snippy and barely acknowledged my presence. Other times, instead of answering a question, he’d respond by simply rephrasing my question into a sentence and saying it back to me.
But most of the time, Parker was surprisingly helpful and pleasant. I learned some of the cliches Parker likes to throw around at least a few times per year (“That was a great college hockey game”, “They’re egomaniacs with an inferiority complex”, “I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn last night”, etc.), discovered his love of referencing anything about the Celtics or Bill Russell, and cursed Bill Belichick for inspiring Parker to be as vague as possible about any injuries (“It’s a body injury. That’s all I know.”). Quite a few times, I asked Parker to speak up once he inevitably started mumbling at a pitch too low for my voice recorder to pick up, or I’d ask him to repeat himself after he coughed his way through a sentence.
I learned to appreciate, instead of dread, the wry look on his face and the twirl of a laser pointer that always preceded some interesting way for him to skirt a tough question, but I also appreciated his consistently candid honesty when things turned serious.
It wasn’t always strictly BU business with Parker. When Jack Jablonski, a Minnesota high school player, was paralyzed last winter from the chest down, I was the one to inform Parker that Jablonski’s spine was severed, thus making Jablonski’s paralysis irreversible without a miracle. Parker’s face turned dark the second I told him. He gasped and said quietly, possibly to himself, “That’s worse than Travis [Roy, a former BU player who is a quadriplegic].” His eyes welled up and he needed a minute before he was able to continue speaking.
I had an extended conversation with him last year about the Joe Paterno scandal and his disgust with the way sports can overshadow morals. I’ve spoken with Parker about his views on the Catholic church (he dislikes the way Cardinal Bernard Law lives like a prince in the wake of the Boston archdiocese sex abuse scandal). We’ve talked about the struggle of one of his close friends with autism and how that inspired him to get his entire team involved in Autism Speaks.
Last season was especially difficult at BU for Parker, the players, the athletics department and, yes, the reporters covering the team. When former BU player Corey Trivino was arrested on charges related to sexual assault, Parker called me for an interview (it was winter break and he was not in the office). I could hear the strain and frustration in his voice as he explained how for years, he attempted to convince Trivino he had a substance abuse issue and needed help. I listened as Parker described his first move upon hearing of Trivino’s arrest in the early hours of the morning. Even though Trivino was clearly out of line, Parker’s instinct was to protect his player; he immediately found Trivino a lawyer so he would be represented in court properly the next day and then phoned Trivino’s parents as they drove down from Toronto.
I will never forget Parker telling me he knew something bad would eventually happen with Trivino and how he had only prayed Trivino never hurt anyone else. I will never forget the feeling of how much Parker seemed to regret that he had not been able to do more ahead of time.
I unfortunately had an all-too-similar conversation with Parker just 10 weeks later when former Terrier Max Nicastro was arrested on charges of attempted rape. This time, there was desperation in Parker’s voice as he vowed, just hours after Nicastro’s arrest, to investigate his own team. He wanted to personally figure out why his players were getting into such serious trouble and determine how to get rid of any type of negative culture from his team. BU’s investigation into the hockey program was held separately of and in addition to Parker’s; the coach was not going to be satisfied with only someone else’s report on his team. It is, after all, his team.
And despite all the difficult moments last season, there were bright moments over the years with Parker that I will never forget. Parker would frequently ask about my classes and life away from the hockey rink. Last season, when I was a senior and the team was making a national tournament run, he decided to give me career advice.
“I always tell my players to play hockey for as long as they’ll pay you because you don’t want to work in the real world until you absolutely have to,” Parker said. Then he grinned. “So, play hockey for as long as they’ll pay you.”
I’ve never played hockey, so that advice was not the most valuable I’ve received, but it made me smile during a time when the unknown of the future was so daunting.
Then there was a time when I ran into Parker at T Anthony’s. He was so genuinely excited to see me that he shook me as he exclaimed, “It’s so great to see you outside of the rink!” I had yet to have my coffee that morning, and I’m pretty sure I just grunted back at him.
Last April, I went to a senior appreciation event at BU with my friends. Parker was also in attendance. As soon as he saw me, he sped over to my table and had me introduce him to my friends and roommates before asking them all about their lives and joining in our debate over the then-state of the Red Sox. He auctioned off a pair of his season tickets and ironically, I won them. He grinned when he saw they were mine and told me there was something special about his seats. He said he expected me to report back to him after the game as to how it went and if I figured out what makes his seats special (the seats are on the third baseline and have a counter in front of them so you have a place to put your food and drink).
I am so grateful not just for those Red Sox tickets, but also for having gotten the chance to know Parker over the past few years. He has been interviewed by hundreds of reporters over the years, and there are so many people who know him better and have known him for much longer than me. In a few years, who knows if he will still remember me. But I know for the rest of my life, I will remember him not only as the face of BU hockey, but as one of the highlights of my college experience and one of the best coaches with whom I have worked.
And, well, maybe I’ll also remember him as the man who, at 68 years old, can’t carry a plate of gravy without spilling it.