The phone rang in Snooks Kelley’s office, and it was Len Ceglarski, then the hockey coach at Clarkson, in need of help. A new season approached and he was about to hire his first full-time assistant. Was there any chance his pal Kelley, Boston College’s legendary bench boss, could recommend someone?
In roughly the time it takes to open and close a bench door at a hockey rink, Kelley conducted his exhaustive nationwide search with but a glance at the rawboned kid standing across from his desk at The Heights.
Hold on, said Kelley, and he handed the phone to a somewhat dumbstruck 24-year-old Jerry York.
“You know, Snooks probably could have thought of any one of a thousand people,’’ recalled York, that serendipitous moment still resonating with him nearly 1,000 coaching victories later. “But it just so happens he looks across, and it’s, ‘Sure, yeah, I’ve got a guy right here.’ ’’
And so it began. Before the start of the 1970-71 academic year, newly married and career destiny unknown, York was on his way to Potsdam, N.Y., as Ceglarski’s freshly anointed aide de camp. Compensation: $9,000 a year and a “go-get-’em’’ slap on the back. The coaching world, as framed by rinks 85 feet wide and 200 feet long, would be his to have and to hold.
“Oh, that was hard,’’ recalled Bobbie York, who began dating her future husband in their undergraduate days at BC in the mid ’60s. “We were leaving our wedding reception and everyone was crying because we were leaving town. So, yeah, we drove up, honeymooned in Lake Placid, and there we were.’’
But not until an impromptu greeting from the upstate New York wildlife committee.
“On the drive up there,’’ said Bobbie, “we saw a big black bear run right across the highway. And I said, ‘Jerry, where are we going?!’ ’’
As it turned out, they were on the road to bountiful. York, now 70 years old and with five NCAA titles — including four since taking over at BC in 1994 — will be behind the bench Friday with a chance to record career win No. 1,000 when the Eagles take on UMass.
Every win now adds to York’s prodigious, near-unbelievable lifetime dossier. No hockey coach in Division 1 college history has reached such rarefied air. He eclipsed Ron Mason’s standing mark of 924 wins in December 2012, and soon will double the 501 career wins the legendary Kelley rolled up in his long tour at BC, where the rink inside Conte Forum has his name printed in the ice.
When Ceglarski succeeded Kelley at BC for the start of the 1972-73 season, York, only two years after seeing the bear cross the highway, was promoted to head coach at Clarkson. It officially launched him on a career trajectory that now has covered three schools (Clarkson, Bowling Green, and BC), 44 seasons, 1,700 games and an all-time roster of some 350 players.
No one else has such numbers, and it’s doubtful they’ll be challenged.
“Wow, I mean, 1,000 wins,’’ mused Wayne Wilson, longtime coach at Division 1 RIT, who played on York’s first NCAA title team at Bowling Green in 1984. “I can’t see anyone starting their career that young and then having that kind of success for so long. Not happening. Not unless they ramp up college hockey to, like, 50 games a year.’’
A momentous month
Had it all gone according to plan, York figures, he would have stuck around Boston and used his master’s degree in education, earned while a student coach at BC, to launch a high school career as a guidance counselor and hockey coach. He grew up in Watertown, one of 10 children, and came to The Heights in the fall of 1963 after graduating that spring from BC High.
He met Kelley for the first time during his senior year of high school, brought to campus by his coach, the Rev. Leo Pollard. Kelley was in the stands that night to watch the BC freshmen play a game.
“So he took me up to meet Snooks,’’ recalled York, “and when I left, I thought what an honor if I got a chance to come here and play at BC. I was a walk-on. We never talked tuition, room and board, nothing. They just said they were very interested.
“I already had applied to the school. I was thinking of Middlebury or Bowdoin. I had a little more contact with those types of schools. But I thought, ‘Boy, if I could play at BC,’ you know?”
By the fall, he was at The Heights, a “poor-skating center . . . who could make plays, but couldn’t skate,’’ he said. Then came two eventful days in November, York not sure what to make of either of them.
First, on Nov. 20, his father, a doctor who made his office in the family’s Watertown home, died suddenly of a heart attack while testifying in a courtroom.
“I remember the week like that,’’ said York, snapping his fingers, and reaching for a framed picture of his father he keeps in his office. “All of a sudden, a priest calls me down, and I am thinking, ‘Gee, I must not be doing well in school.’
“The teacher told me after class to go see the academic dean. I am thinking, ‘Gee, I haven’t done well in math’ or whatever. I sit down and he says, ‘Your dad died.’ Whoa!”
Two days later, on Friday, Nov. 22, York was away from campus for his father’s services when the nation learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
“I am 18 and banged by that,’’ he said, initially referring to his father’s unexpected death. “Then all of a sudden Kennedy died, and it’s, ‘Whoa, do I want to stay in school?’
“I was all mixed up. It was a tumultuous year. Vietnam was just starting to come. That was how I started the whole school year.’’
He stuck it out, played the freshman hockey season, went on to become a three-year letterman, and totaled 134 points in 81 games for the Eagles. He graduated in 1967 and was back playing hockey that fall in Minneapolis, hoping to suit up for Team USA in the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble.
Cut by the Yanks near the new year, he reported directly to Fort Polk, La., to complete his US Army duties before returning to the BC campus in the fall of ’68 to start a master’s program in education. With Kelley still on the job as head coach, York for the next two years rejoined the team as a student assistant coach and also ran the intramural program.
Until, that is, the day Kelley fielded Ceglarski’s phone call.
“Funny the way things change, isn’t it?’’ said York, who oversees a staff these days of two assistant coaches, a volunteer coach, and a director of hockey operations. “Funny how your life can change in different ways.’’
The York method may not be patented, but there is a definite pattern to it, one he and his players say is based on bountiful energy and perpetual enthusiasm. Calm and even stoic behind the bench during games, and always dressed in professorial jacket and tie, York is typically loud and often animated in practice.
“That’s really him,’’ noted Bobbie. “The Energizer Bunny. He just keeps going.’’
“He is always the most passionate guy on the ice,’’ added senior captain Teddy Doherty, a defenseman from Hopkinton. “I think that is what you want in a leader. He cares so much. He wants to win. He hates to lose more than anything in the entire world.”
“He is the most emotional person on the ice for practice,’’ agreed junior forward Chris Calnan, an assistant captain from Norwell. “Right when you get on the ice. He is banging his stick, yelling, he is excited every single day. It’s really amazing.
“So if it’s a freshman, sophomore, whoever, everyone is thinking, ‘Hey, let’s have a good practice, this guy is fired up!’ ’’
There are also dashes of old-school ways in the York tool kit. He reminds players to make their beds to start their day, arrive to the rink on time, keep their hair cut short, and to be clean shaven.
“I could use a shave right now,’’ mused Doherty, rubbing fingers through some chin stubble. “If it’s like this again, he’d tell me, ‘If you don’t shave by tomorrow, you’re not practicing.’ He means it.’’
Has Doherty ever missed practiced on a grooming violation?
“Uh, no,’’ he said.
There is also York’s emphasis on a class system, preaching not only cohesiveness as a team, but a bonding within the four classes. He tells them all, repeatedly, that he wants them all to leave The Heights with a ring and a diploma. Many of them have succeeded on both scores, with York directing BC to national championships in 2001, 2008, 2010, and 2012. Unity and playing for one another, he believes, are key.
Upon arrival, each freshman is paired in their dorm unit with another freshman on the team. For sophomore, junior, and senior seasons, the players live in six- or eight-man campus suites, again living with teammates in their same class. York, the players say, drops by fairly frequently, to inspect their digs and give them grades on room tidiness.
“I don’t think anyone ever got an A or A-minus,’’ noted Calnan, a finance major who was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2012.
Calnan, who lives in an eight-man suite, says he and his roomies have consistently graded in the B range.
“Not bad,’’ he said. “We try to keep it clean. It all comes back to the character thing.’’
The character thing, said Calnan, is York’s constant reminder that they carry themselves as “small men on campus.’’ They’re not to boast, get in fights, or otherwise make themselves conspicuous by either the “student’’ or the “athlete’’ in their current job title. Wherever they go, whatever they do, said Calnan, they are all expected to act like “poster boys’’ for BC hockey.
“Having good values. Work hard. Be respectful. No drama,’’ said Calnan. “None of the flashy stuff with guys running mouths, getting in fights. You see other kids on campus getting in fights, all that stuff. He just asks us to be a good person and stay true to the values we have here.’’
The proud caretaker
The formula keeps working. Now in his 22nd season at The Heights, York has the four national titles, a record of 532-260-74, and a program that avoids headlines save for its on-ice excellence. The Eagles did not make it to the postseason in York’s first three seasons, but have missed only twice since. Including the championships, they’ve made it to the Frozen Four in 11 of 21 seasons.
“You have to like people,’’ said York, asked to explain his success. “Especially my job, at this level. Ages 18-22, they’re probably the most volatile time in your life. I am always thinking of those decisions. So we have 25 of those guys, and there is always something going on.
“It keeps me on my toes. It’s the ability to handle all that. Not that we always get it right. But you’ve got to handle that. Sure, you have to be proficient in the X’s and O’s, but it is not rocket science. It’s running all the little group dynamics.’’
More than 40 years later, asked to choose the six players he’d prefer to start a game with today, York somewhat surprisingly eschewed the standard coach political correctness, and chose Johnny Gaudreau (BC), Brian Gionta (BC), and Dave Taylor (Clarkson) as his forwards, backed by defensemen Rob Blake (Bowling Green) and Brooks Orpik (BC), and goalie Cory Schneider (BC).
The Gionta pick was no surprise to Bobbie York. She said her husband has long thought a Gionta statue should be paired on campus next to the one of Doug Flutie.
The player who most surprised York over the years?
“I’d have to say Nathan Gerbe,’’ he said, referring to the 5-foot-5-inch center who played three college seasons, left in 2008, and has played upward of 400 NHL games. “He was struggling. Academics were pushing. Hockey wasn’t going well. We were all talking with him.
“Then one day he comes in and says, ‘I think I have figured it out.’ It just clicked. From that day on, it was less about Nathan and more about the team. All of a sudden it was ‘Wow, this is it.’ ’’
If the weight of the thousandth win is heavy on York, it doesn’t show. Over the course of a 45-minute interview, it was clear he was uncomfortable talking about himself, the meter that continues to run on his record, the significance of a W-L-T ledger that soon will begin with four digits under the “W.”
“I tell the kids, we protect the history of the program, but we build something,’’ he said, slightly more comfortable when the subject is how he would care his legacy to be characterized. “We are proud of what we are, but we want to build something special here.
“BC is a terrific program. I didn’t want to just maintain it. I wanted to get better in different areas, and hopefully we are in a better place than 50 years ago, 20 years ago. I think I have been a caretaker of the program and I probably feel proud of that.’’
Next up is UMass, Friday night in Amherst. If that isn’t win No. 1,000, the next chance will be against Connecticut Saturday, on the sheet of ice named for Snooks Kelley.
And after that, no one knows, including the winningest coach in college hockey.
“I enjoy it,’’ he said, pondering how many seasons he’ll continue. “I always thought at Clarkson, ‘Am I going to like it, stay in it?’ Certainly I am a lifer now. I enjoy it. I love the competition and feel good about it.
“It is part of my fabric. I am a coach, it’s what I do. I can’t imagine getting up, reading the Globe and Herald, and thinking, ‘OK, what do I do next?’ ’’