It was perseverance that got Albie O’Connell his first job as a college hockey coach.
He was just a few years out of Boston University and working at the Berkshire School in Western Massachusetts when he went to the annual college hockey coaches’ convention to talk someone into hiring him.
“I just liked his persistence,’’ said Jim Tortorella, who was then head coach at Colby. “He was professional but persistent. He was on me like, ‘You going to meet with me? You going to meet with me?’ ’’
So in 2003, Tortorella brought O’Connell to Waterville, Maine, where he helped Colby to a 14-7-4 record and the NESCAC semifinals, the start of a 15-year run as an assistant coach at seven colleges, a run that has seen him bring in scores of coveted recruits, pack on extra wins, and reach for postseason tournaments.
O’Connell’s persistence has paid off again. When David Quinn left BU in May to take the New York Rangers job, names of prominent BU grads flew quickly along the hockey grapevine. College head coaches, NHL assistants, BU stars of the past all got a mention.
O’Connell had been Quinn’s top assistant for four years and then associate coach, but unlike Quinn, who had long been billed as Jack Parker’s most likely successor when Parker retired in 2013, O’Connell was the loyal, likable assistant, a local guy from Watertown who was never really expected to step up to the high pressure and unblinking spotlight of the top job. He was 42 and had never been a head coach.
But out of public view, there was a movement. Players liked O’Connell. Coaches knew how much he had done for BU and other top college programs.
“We lobbied for him,’’ said Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who spent two years at BU. “I love Albie, he’s amazing. He’s a very personable guy, great coach. He’s always the lighter personality, ends up having fun in the room.
“I’m very fortunate to have had him for a coach — and friend now. He’s awesome. Myself and a lot of other people put in a good word for him.’’
Athletic director Drew Marrochello was the man tasked with making the choice.
“I think I heard from everybody ever who watched the game of hockey, they all had an opinion about who should be the new head coach,’’ Marrochello said. “People are interested. This is a high-profile job.’’
“I was thrilled to see him get the job,’’ said New Jersey Devils assistant coach Mike Grier, another BU alum. “He knows the game, he’s a smart guy, a great recruiter, and all the guys love him.’’
The legendary Parker, who also was an assistant coach when he was suddenly elevated midseason in 1973 after Leon Abbott was fired, and who went on to spend 40 years ruling a powerhouse program, was all in on O’Connell.
“Albie’s been an assistant coach for a bunch of different programs for a long time, he really has paid his dues,’’ Parker said. “He’s worked with a lot of really good coaches in different leagues so I think he’s checked off all the boxes before he got to be a head coach. He’s less of a risk than I was, I’ll tell you that.’’
A fit at BU, then and now
Now O’Connell sits behind a massive desk in his huge new office at Agganis Arena, looking out at an expanse of scarlet carpet. He has a million tasks to juggle, but at this moment, he’s thinking about Chilliwack.
That’s the city in British Columbia hosting a showcase tournament on a September weekend.
“I wish I could have [gone] to British Columbia,’’ he said a little wistfully. “It’s a nice time of year out there. But we’re practicing, making sure guys are doing the right thing. It’s been good, a good change.”
O’Connell has been on the road looking for hockey players for 16 years. As the 12th head coach in BU history, he’s going to have to get used to sticking closer to home.
That’s probably not a problem: He’s actually something of a homebody, a BU coach with a Boston accent.
After being a captain at St. Sebastian’s, O’Connell looked for a college in Boston. And though he’d spent many childhood hours hanging out at Boston College (his older brother went to BC, his father went to BC, his sister went to BC . . .), he liked the vibe at BU.
“I like the city aspect,’’ he said. “BC to me was a great place, but this was a little more real life. A little more Watertown than Wellesley. I wanted to play at the highest level possible, and BU at the time was very good. Through the ’90s, they had things cooking pretty good.’’
In his four years at BU (1995-99), O’Connell enjoyed some of that perennial Terrier success, including four Beanpots, a Hockey East championship, and two trips to the Frozen Four. Playing for Parker, he had 42 goals and 66 assists in 149 career games and captained the Terriers in his senior year, when he led the team in scoring with 39 points.
He spent a couple of years in the minor leagues of pro hockey (places like Pensacola, Fla., and Basingstoke, England, where the fans’ chirping was delivered with an English accent), then launched his coaching career.
He learned how to be a hockey coach, O’Connell says, from Tortorella. The former Colby coach, now an assistant at Harvard, “gave me a road map.’’
O’Connell did it all, from recruiting and coaching to setting up the jerseys and the national anthem on game day. He learned how to use the computer and a spreadsheet. Soon enough he would be living on Excel, as he came to be one of the college game’s top recruiters.
“[Tortorella] ran it like a professional program on a shoestring budget, with sweat and work and effort,’’ O’Connell said. “And he basically taught me how to be an assistant coach and what it takes from an effort standpoint, and recruiting and dealing with families.’’
For the next 15 years, through stops at Niagara, Holy Cross, Merrimack, Northeastern, Harvard, and his alma mater, O’Connell was a happy guy as an assistant coach. At each school, he figured out what was special about the place — he’d start by taking the campus tour alongside prospective students — and then went looking for young players whose talents and personality matched up.
At Niagara, he was recruiting 20-year-olds from Ontario. At Merrimack, he looked for big defensemen who would be intimidating in the tight corners of Lawler Arena. At Harvard, he sold, well, Harvard. At BU, he sold prestige and the long history of the program. And he was basically a happy guy.
“I liked my job,’’ O’Connell said. “My goal every day was, how do I make [the head coach’s] job easier and make the program better? Whether it be through recruiting or stupid office stuff. Just being diligent. Because there’s a lot of stuff flying at you, a lot of pulls.’’
Slight change in style
O’Connell’s first move as BU’s head coach was to hire away Paul Pearl (formerly head coach at Holy Cross) from Harvard as an assistant. He also retained Len Quesnelle (former head coach at Princeton) from Quinn’s staff, giving him two former head coaches to consult.
O’Connell expects to keep BU on the track that Quinn laid down, building a fast, competitive team.
“I think we’ll continue to recruit and coach similarly. Obviously Quinnie and I are not the same type of guy — we’re very different,’’ said O’Connell, unable to suppress a grin. “He’s probably better looking, he’s probably in better shape. I’m just a little bit more laidback. He’s got a loud, demonstrative voice. I don’t talk as much.
“But we have similar styles in that we want to keep the way BU plays, we should be a fast, competitive, in-your-face team that plays good defense.’’
O’Connell will keep recruiting the stars BU is famous for, but he has plans for them.
“A lot of the guys we get are high-stepping — you know, they’ve got the puck a lot and they were the best player before they got here — but sometimes they’ve got to learn to play without the puck and learn how to handle it and do those sort of things they’ve been able to get away with just being real good.
“So we’ve got to mold a team with keeping their individual skills and freedom alive because that’s what’s going to win the games.’’
Last season, after a slow start, BU went 22-14-4, 12-8-4 Hockey East, captured its ninth conference tournament title, and reached the NCAA Northeast Regional final.
The Terriers lost two of their top four scorers in Jordan Greenway and Brady Tkachuk, but co-leader Bobo Carpenter (20-15—35) is a senior and Shane Bowers (17-15—32) a sophomore, and Patrick Harper (21 points in 20 games) is back after missing half a season with injury.
A fresh set of recruits will step in, led by Joel Farabee and Jake Wise (from North Andover) from the US Under-18 national team. The core of the defense is experienced, with Dante Fabbro (29 points) and Chad Krys (27 points) both juniors.
It will be, as O’Connell points out, the first time in three years that stellar goaltender Jake Oettinger (21-13-4, 2.45 GAA, .915 save percentage) will have no outside distractions like the world junior championships and can focus squarely on BU.
BU opens its season Oct. 12 at Minnesota State.
. . .
A look at the other Boston teams:
■ Northeastern was 23-10-5, 15-6-3 Hockey East, won its first Beanpot since 1988, and reached the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinals. But the Huskies lost their dynamic top line (Adam Gaudette, Dylan Sikura , and Nolan Stevens had a combined 136 points). The leading returning scorers are forward Zach Solow (5-21—26) and defenseman Jérémy Davies (6-29—35). Goaltending is a strength with the presence of sophomore Cayden Primeau (1.92 GAA, .931 save percentage). The 21 returning letter-winners are joined by six newcomers, including 2018 NHL draft picks Tyler Madden (Vancouver), a forward, and Jordan Harris (Montreal), a defenseman.
■ Boston College was 20-14-3, 18-6-0 Hockey East, and despite depleted numbers, improved consistently and won the regular-season conference title. The Eagles lost only one player and added a handful, including highly-touted freshman Oliver Wahlstrom from the US U-18 national team, BC’s ninth player from the national program. Junior goaltender Joseph Woll (17-11-2, 2.48 GAA, .915 save percentage) is one of the nation’s best.
■ Harvard was 15-14-4, 11-8-3 ECAC, and reached the ECAC semifinals. The Crimson’s biggest problem will be replacing coach Ted Donato’s son Ryan, who was 26-17—43 as a junior and then decamped for the Bruins. Senior forward Lewis Zerter-Gossage (10-19—29) is the leading returning goal scorer. Harvard also must replace goalie Merrick Madsen. The Crimson are young and fast and will lean on multitalented puckhandling defenseman Adam Fox (6-22—28) to make things happen.