When Boston University hired Jack Parker as its head hockey coach in 1973, Parker had a memorable chat with his ex-college coach about the position.
“When I got the job, my former coach Jack Kelley called me up and congratulated me,’’ said Parker. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I said, ‘Jack, I really appreciate that. I’ll be calling you for some help but I’ll tell you one thing, I won’t be on this job 10 years like you were.’ And I wasn’t.’’
No, he wasn’t. Parker, who turned 68 Monday, lasted 40 often remarkable years behind the Terriers bench. He officially announced his retirement, which will commence at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season, Monday at Agganis Arena.
“It’s been a great run, I’ve had a great time doing it,’’ said Parker, who has 894 career victories, three national titles, and a record 24 NCAA Tournament appearances heading into this weekend’s Hockey East quarterfinals against Merrimack. “It’s time. It’s a tough job. I always say hello and goodbye to every coach we play against and I always do that because we’re a group of few people who know exactly how tough this job is. It takes a lot out of you, there are lot of rewards as well.’’
Parker thought about hanging up his whistle after last season but there was well-publicized turmoil around the team and he didn’t want to go out that way. He elected to announce it Monday because he didn’t want a farewell tour and he didn’t think it was fair to wait until the end of the year to blindside his players.
“I always talk about BU being a family,’’ said Parker. “I’ve got two daughters and about 226 sons. The team I have right now are my youngest sons and I’m not going to have any more children. I wanted the team to know we are going to go through this together.’’
Parker, who said it was his decision to step down, has had his contract extended through 2017-18 and will be staying on as a special adviser to the president of the university, Dr. Robert A. Brown, with a key role in BU’s billion-dollar fundraising campaign announced last fall.
One of the best parts of his career was tied to the worst moment of his career, when Travis Roy suffered a devastating injury Oct. 20, 1995 during Roy’s first collegiate shift, leaving him a quadriplegic.
“I always tell people the worst thing that happened to me as the hockey coach at BU is Travis Roy’s injury and the best thing that ever happened to me at BU was the way Boston University and the hockey community responded to Travis Roy’s injury,’’ said Parker. “The hockey community is a great thing to be part of.’’
One of Parker’s former players, Chris O’Sullivan, who is now an NHL scout as well as a Boston police officer, said it was a very emotional day for him.
“My mother had cancer when I was 17 when I came to make my commitment to BU,’’ said O’Sullivan, who started going to BU hockey games when he was just 6 and was on the 1995 NCAA championship team.
“She was in a wheelchair and Jack went over and had a conversation with her and it was her last months. It’s a sad day in a way but it’s a very proud day to be a part of the university and part of the hockey program in particular.’’
O’Sullivan said Parker has special meaning to everyone he has coached. Parker was a guiding light for him when he lost both his parents to cancer.
“It goes to show you he has touched everyone personally,’’ said O’Sullivan.
“Mentor is not the word, he’s a guy we have looked at as a second father and a special friend. He has touched our lives off the ice as much as he did on the ice. It’s a day of reflection but it’s also exciting that he is going out on his terms.’’
Former BU player and Olympic champion Dave Silk said Parker is more than just BU hockey.
“I think Jack is right there with John Silber in terms of visibility and credibility and prestige for the university,’’ said Silk. “Parker’s name has become synonymous with BU as much as BU hockey. That’s what I think the legacy is.
“For college hockey, Jack has always been a responsible advocate for the integrity of college hockey whether it’s recruiting, rule changes, equipment changes, redefining leagues.
“He has always been someone the other coaches listen to. One of the reasons you coach for 40 years is you have the ability to roll and change and kind of morph as kids change and as the game changes, you change with them. I think that was always one of Jack’s real gifts. He could roll with the changes.’’
Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said Parker always has been a great ambassador for the sport, not just for his school or his league.
“I have great respect for Jack,’’ said Bertagna.
“[At the coaches meetings in Florida], someone with 40 years in the game, he could go to the beach if he wanted to but he would be front and center, standing up, getting engaged, and fighting for things. It wasn’t all about BU or Hockey East. He set a great example for younger coaches about how you have to do things beyond your own self interest. Jack has always been very active for the game. He’s been a very loyal guy to a lot of people.’’
Boston College coach Jerry York had to run his team’s practice and said he regretted he couldn’t attend the news conference.
“It caught me a little bit by surprise,’’ said York.
“We have had a personal relationship for 53 years, the last 40 years as professionals competing. It’s a unique relationship that has stood the test of time.
“He was Somerville, I was Watertown, there are a lot of similarities. We have different personalities but there are a lot of similar characteristics because of hockey. We’re going to miss him an awful lot.’’
No doubt York will be asked if he is next to step aside but he said he isn’t thinking about that.
“Every morning I wake up, I’m excited about coaching a hockey team at BC,’’ he said. “If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. I really like what I do. I can’t ever imagine not doing it.’’
Current BU defenseman Garrett Noonan said Parker’s decision was difficult to swallow but he understands.
“I’m pretty surprised,’’ said Noonan, who is recovering from a shoulder injury and is hopeful to play again this year. “I’m definitely sad that it’s happened but I’m happy for Coach because now he gets to do things he probably hasn’t been able to do for a while.
“Forty years is a long time. I definitely thought he’d be back next year but I’m happy for him, he’s been unbelievable for me. He’s an unbelievable leader. He really does care about his players.’’
Noonan said he expects the Terriers to have even more motivation going against Merrimack.
“It’s been such an up-and-down year on the ice for us,’’ said Noonan. “It’s crazy to think this is the last time he’s going to coach us. Hopefully we go out winning it because no one wants to remember his last game as a loss.”
As for Parker’s successor, he said he will have a say, but not the final one.
Athletic director Mike Lynch said the search for a new coach will begin over the course of the next several weeks.
“This is a marquee job,’’ said Lynch. “It’s an enormously important position and it will be handled at the highest level of the university.’’
Until then, though, Parker will relish his time left with his favorite aspect of the job — his relationship with his team.
“It’s hard to walk away,’’ he said. “I would like see Danny O’Regan and see how good he’s going to be. We have a couple of incoming freshmen and I’d like to coach those guys.
“But there is always the next Danny O’Regan, there is always the next incoming freshman — sooner or later, you have to cut the ties. More than anything else, I had a great time with my players.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.