Boston College hockey coach Jerry York frequently references his upbringing in Watertown, the joys of pond skating, and whatever is going on with the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots, and Bruins.
His tone is upbeat, his personality outgoing. But when hockey games on are the line, his affability gives way to a steely resolve. The goal of the Eagles is to win trophies and the program has boatloads of them, including three NCAA championships in the last five years.
Over that span, BC is 135-53-18. The only college teams with comparable records are Michigan (141 wins), North Dakota (135), Miami (132), and Denver (126), but none has a national title.
The defending champions don’t believe in resting on their laurels. From the seniors through the freshmen, the goal is to win now. Every year.
“When I won it my freshman year, [former Eagles captain] Matty Price had already won one and the rest of that senior class,’’ said BC captain Pat Mullane. “Their focus was that they had experienced it, but the sophomores and freshmen hadn’t. It was instilled in me that the legacy was if you have one, you make sure the younger guys get one. I’d love to see the freshmen win a national championship and selfishly, I’d love to win three. We would love to be the one class in Boston College history with three national championships. That’s part of our drive. That’s a personal goal within a team goal. When you have success, you want that much more of it.’’
Mullane said BC recruits top talent, but that is only part of the story. He said the coaching staff makes no secret of its high expectations.
“It obviously starts at the top with coach York,’’ said Mullane. “They want to win just as badly as we do. They’re not interested in personal goals. [York] could care less that he has 900 wins. All he wanted was that one trophy at the end. When your leader has that mentality, it really trickles down. I think it’s also the kids who play here and the kids coach York brings in.
“A perfect example is Barry Almeida. He didn’t crack our top three lines for the first three years. He could’ve gone to a ton of other schools and he’d have been a first-line guy all four years. But he comes to BC because he wants to win and he’s willing to sacrifice to be the third or fourth-line guy for us who kills penalties and blocks shots, all the things he has to do for us to be successful. We have a ton of those guys in the locker room. I think that’s what has made us so successful. It’s in the culture.’’
That culture is the reason defenseman Michael Matheson, a first-round pick of the Florida Panthers (No. 23 overall) in the 2012 draft, chose the Eagles.
“There are no better three coaches in all of NCAA hockey,’’ said Matheson, referring to York, and associate head coaches Greg Brown and Mike Cavanaugh. “The success they’ve had lately, it just reinforces it all the more. There might be a little bit of pressure, but I like that, I like being in a program that is expected to win. If it’s not, you’re not going to advance and progress the way you should.’’
Matheson said he was comfortable with the other players from the moment he walked into the locker room and that camaraderie makes them all work harder.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to a team through a whole season than I have in the first month here,’’ he said. “It’s incredible how close the older guys are and the way they [included the new players]. All seven freshmen, they just accepted us.’’
Mullane said a key reason the Eagles perform so well in the most important contests is because they have so much experience.
“Winning at the high school or junior level doesn’t compare to when you step into TD Garden and there are 20,000 people there,’’ he said. “We prepare well here. The older guys have experienced success and we take it upon ourselves to lead by example on those big stages and the freshmen kind of follow.’’
As much as it’s a function of talent, it’s also like the old NFL saying about scoring touchdowns — act like you’ve been there before.
“I’m not putting down any other school, but the fact that we’re there so much, and I say that humbly, we can act like we’ve been there,’’ said Mullane. “Some schools get to the Garden or wherever they may be and they’re like me my freshman year, you’re starstruck. For me, fortunately, I was brought back down to earth by the older guys. Whereas a lot of teams, if they haven’t had that success, the older guys are starstruck and they don’t have anyone to bring them back down to earth.’’
If it is human nature to be satisfied after achieving success, BC’s program allows for proper celebration, but when the next year comes, last year’s goals are put aside.
“Obviously, after we won last year, there was a time when we weren’t working out, and weren’t practicing,’’ said Mullane. “We could sit back and say, ‘This is great,’ but when summer workouts started, the coaching staff and strength staff and seniors made it clear, we’re not satisfied. We want to have No. 6 for the school and No. 3 for our class. I’d love to see our freshman class experience a national championship. There’s no complacency there.’’
BC sophomore forward Johnny Gaudreau, who had an electrifying rookie year, said winning only whetted his appetite for more.
“I want to win a national championship again,’’ said Gaudreau. “Right now, it’s like I haven’t won one. It would be special to do it twice in a row. Every time I step on the ice, I’m excited to play. I hate losing. Every time you put on the jersey and step on the ice, the hunger just starts right out of the gate.’’
One of the critical factors to the Eagles’ success last year was the play of goaltender Parker Milner, who had big shoes to fill after four-year starter John Muse graduated. As a junior, Milner led the Eagles to a 19-victory run that culminated in the championship. He said he believes he still has plenty to prove.
“You want to pick apart the things you did well so you can do them again,’’ said Milner. “It doesn’t just automatically happen again. We won’t be replicating it, we can’t expect to have it exactly happen. We have a strong group, but we just need to realize it’s a different year. Most people think the more you win it, the less hungry you get. But from my experience of winning two, it kind of works the opposite way. It increases it. I want to improve, I want to improve my leadership. There is not much flashy I try to do. I just want to be that consistent piece [of the puzzle] that guys can rely on.’’
York said his players realize that there is a bigger picture on which to focus than their individual achievements.
“I really think we’ve become very good at leaving your ego at the door,’’ said York. “You can have good players but if they don’t develop and get better during the season, during their careers, it doesn’t account for much. I think our players really feel that team goals are important for them. The leadership of Ben Smith and Ryan Shannon and Tommy Cross and now Pat Mullane, they really reinforce it. We have a number of players who could easily be thinking about Hobey Baker [awards] and All-American [honors]. They come into the arena and think about team aspects and that’s helping us an awful lot.’’
When asked if he actively recruits student-athletes who have leadership qualities, York said it’s not easy to quantify.
“We try to measure it, it’s awfully hard to do it,’’ he said. “We try to make it clear we’re looking at team goals here. We’re not trying to make you the next Hobey Baker winner at BC. If it happens, it happens. We really push the team aspect. I learned that from my Little League coach [Richie Crowley].’’
No team has won back-to-back titles since Denver in 2004 and ’05 and York acknowledged it’s not easy to repeat.
“It’s hard to win,’’ said York. “It’s hard to win anything.’’
The Eagles only make it look easy.