This is the month that came to define the program. April was when the Boston College men’s hockey team mastered the art of taking rivals’ sticks away while managing to keep theirs.
Jerry York coached at the Heights for 28 years, and springtime was his season. His varsities made the NCAA tournament 18 times, advanced to the Frozen Four 12 times, to the final eight times, and won the championship four times.
The man who was the Archbishop of April hung up his skates and his whistle Wednesday at 76 after 1,123 victories at three schools. What he leaves behind is not only a legacy of extended excellence but also a deserved reputation for his teams playing the game the right way.
The Eagles were exciting to watch. They featured a hard, fast, but clean brand of hockey. And their names didn’t end up on police blotters. Rule 1 was that you did not embarrass the program, and none of York’s players ever had to ask him to elaborate.
They were clean-cut, respectful, and punctual. Their coach was all about old-school values, and the old school happened to be his school. York grew up in Watertown playing on frozen playgrounds. He didn’t wear a uniform until he made the team at BC High, where he was so fretful during tryouts that he took the ice wearing his skate guards.
He walked on at BC and ended up as the 1967 captain and a first-team All-American. Coach Snooks Kelley hired York as a graduate assistant and he went on to spend half a century behind several benches.
There were seven years as head coach at Clarkson, then 15 at Bowling Green, where his squads went to the NCAAs half a dozen times and claimed the 1984 title.
When York returned to his alma mater in 1994, the program was in its worst shape since the Depression with three consecutive losing seasons.
He turned that around in one recruiting cycle. The 1998 team came within a crossbar ricochet of winning the school’s first national championship since 1949. The title came three years later, and it set the campus standard going forward.
There was plenty of hardware acquired along the way. Eleven Hockey East regular-season trophies (which York called “winning the pennant”) and nine tournament crowns. Those championship hats were cherished; they didn’t come inside cereal boxes, York observed. But those titles were considered steppingstones to the ultimate prize.
Winning the Beanpot, which BC did seven times in nine years, was satisfying, but it was a neighborhood thing. The goal was to be the last sextet standing at the season’s end. That’s why the schedule posted in the locker room was listed in reverse, with the opener at the bottom and the Frozen Four at the top.
The closer to the pinnacle, it was understood, the more difficult the games became.
“You need to take their sticks away,” York said. “Nobody likes to turn in their gear.”
So getting to the Frozen Four often was a struggle; five times the Eagles advanced by one goal. But when the tension was highest, the players would look to their coach, wearing his perennial dark blazer, sweater, necktie, and unflappable expression.
“Let’s just try to win a hockey game,” York advised them when they went to overtime with Miami in 2008. A fortnight later, BC was national champion.
The Eagles customarily were at their best when the whole country was watching. Their Frozen Four scores were 6-1 and 4-1 in 2008, 7-1 and 5-0 in 2010, and 6-1, 4-1 in 2012.
In recent years, as more players departed early for the NHL, BC’s winning model that was constructed on continuity and upperclass leadership became more difficult to sustain. York and his assistants annually pondered “flight risks” — which players were most likely to decamp.
They were startled in 2016 when seven did, leaving the program with no juniors. The only rising senior was the manager.
“We kept him,” York said. “He turned down Gillette and he turned down Merrill Lynch and he’s going to stay.”
The question in recent years was how long York himself would stay. He’d won a couple hundred more games than any other coach and already was in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder. York’s response was that he’d know when it was time to go. That time was this week, and his departure was announced without fanfare, which is how York likes to go about most things.
Like Jack Parker at Boston University and Bill Cleary at Harvard, York’s tenure at BC was measured not in years but decades. There was a time when that was true of multiple hockey coaches such as Red Berenson at Michigan, Ron Mason at Michigan State, John MacInnes at Michigan Tech, Jack Riley at Army, and Dick Umile at New Hampshire.
But today’s volatile college landscape, with the transfer portal creating roster churn everywhere, won’t allow for that kind of longevity behind a Division 1 bench. Who wants to rebuild his team every season?
What Jerry York was able to sustain successfully for half a century was remarkable. He won 1,123 games at three schools, and everyone liked him. That’s more remarkable still.