Jerry York on cusp of hockey history

BC coach Jerry York is on the verge of breaking the NCAA hockey career wins record. Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Boston College football coach Frank Spaziani this week felt the cold, harsh reality of the "just win" mentality that dominates today's collegiate landscape. The fourth-year coach was fired after the Eagles finished with a 2-10 mark, and departs with an overall record of 22-29. More important, Spaziani's teams were heading in the wrong direction, getting worse each season under his leadership.

Conversely, BC hockey coach Jerry York made good on his fourth season behind the bench of the Eagles' hockey team, turning around a moribund program after replacing longtime BC assistant Steve Cedorchuk in 1994. After compiling a 42-58-9 record in his first three seasons, York guided the 1997-98 Eagles to a 28-9-5 mark and a spot in the NCAA tournament final.

"They really struggled the first couple of years, because they had to go out and recruit kids," said York's longtime rival, Boston University coach Jack Parker. "But once he got three or four classes in a row in there, the thing turned around completely."

No BC hockey team has finished below .500 since (though the post-championship squad of 2001-02 came close, finishing 18-18-2). Over that 18-plus year stretch under York, the Eagles have gone 456-223-60 and won four NCAA championships (2001, 2008, 2010 and 2012). Thirteen of his BC teams have collected 24 or more wins, and three of those topped the 30-win mark, including last year's national champions (33-10-1).

York now has 923 collegiate wins, one shy of tying Ron Mason's record of 924. In a scheduling twist that even Hollywood scriptwriters would reject, the No. 1 Eagles enter the weekend with a chance to help York tie and then eclipse Mason's record if they can sweep a home-and-home series against their crosstown nemesis, the No. 9 BU Terriers (coincidentally, Parker comes into the game with 883 wins, second all-time among active coaches).

True to his one-day-at-a-time nature, though, York politely declines to discuss Mason's record, or the media spotlight on the two-game set against BU.

"I can ignore it, for sure, because I just want to win a hockey game," said York on Tuesday of the pregame hype. "We're preparing for that all week. So (the record) is not something that drives me. It's never been part of my fabric. The practice at 2:30 today is what drives me. Let's get better today."

It is the same approach that York has always brought to the rink, said Greg Brown, one of York's associate head coaches. "It's a hard weekend. BU is very good," Brown said. "You have to separate the two. That's the way Jerry is. He hasn't mentioned (the record), he doesn't talk about it. He wants to win for this team, not for his record or anything like that. We have to treat it the same way. Every game is so important. And obviously, when you're playing your rival, you have a little more energy for those."

The York difference

It's the upbeat energy that the 67-year-old York embodies that has set him apart from many of his coaching contemporaries.

"It comes easy for me, just because I love the sport," said York. "I love hockey; it intrigues me. The physical contact, the speed of the game, the skill that's necessary to play it, there are so many elements to the game. I fell in love with it so many years ago, probably seventh or eighth grade. I just really enjoy what I do."

That fact is readily apparent to his staff, including Brown and Mike Cavanaugh, another BC associate coach and a York lieutenant for 20 years.

"To have the longevity is hard enough, but then to have the passion to continue on, every day, like he has, every day is Christmas," Brown said. "When he shows up at the rink, he has such enthusiasm, every single day. He's so consistent with it."

The players, in turn, respond. "His enthusiasm is so infectious for the kids," said Brown, now in his ninth year on the bench with York. "They may be tired or they may have a big test or a big paper that day, but he brings such an energy every day to the locker room that by the time they're dressed and ready to go out for practice, they've got their heads screwed on straight and they're going to get something out of that practice."

Cavanaugh said BC has always been able to get blue-chip prospects, but York's signature gift is his ability is able create a squad that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

"Part of Jerry's hockey IQ is that he really understands how to mold a team," Cavanaugh said. "He understands that you have to let good players play. I don't think he ever pigeonholes any of his players. He doesn't get too caught up in the intricacies of a left-wing lock forecheck, or neutral zone defense. He doesn't spend hours and hours trying to figure that out and master that. His hockey IQ is, 'If I recruit good players, if I teach them respect and instill discipline, they're going to win.'

"There are a lot of places, Boston University, Harvard is recruiting great players right now, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota, Denver, they all have storied programs. So we all have the ability to get good payers. But molding those players, and getting them to play for each other, that's where I think Jerry's greatest strength is."

York, meanwhile, acknowledges that while his players have changed, there are timeless tenets to coaching young men that remain despite the march of time.

"The clothing has changed and the haircuts have changed, but what's stayed the same is the basic need, 'I want discipline. I want to be on a team. I don't want to be involved with a lot of individuals seeking All-American honors,' " York said. "The basic drive to hang banners at schools is what brings teams together, and the discipline required to do that.

"Whether it's getting up early in the morning, or staying late after practice, the discipline that's involved, that's never wavered. In the 1970s, (Clarkson All-American and future NHL star) Dave Taylor wanted to hang a banner. That was his whole goal. And I saw it with (Washington Capitals general manager George) McPhee at Bowling Green. And I saw it here early with (Montreal Canadien Brian) Gionta. And we see it now with Pat Mullane. They want to hang banners. That type of 20-year-old player, his needs haven't changed."

York is quick to give accolades to his players for his coaching accomplishments, recognizing not only their talents but also their commitment to their team.

"It's not enough to have good players," York said. "You need good players that want to get better, and they want to get better with the team. Their ego has to stay at the door.

"Good players that aren't on the same page, and aren't seeking improvements, stay good players," he said. "We're looking for greatness out of our players. Daily improvement. Let's reach for that one percent improvement. Let's get better. That's essential to have championship-level teams."

The game itself has also changed, with today's short-shift, track-meet pace making the games of the 1980s look almost ponderous. However, York said his reliance on the basic foundations of the game has never failed him.

"The fundamentals are the most important part of coaching," he said. "The more I've watched, the skating, the passing, the skill work, it's all about fundamentals. I've seen a lot of different changes in how the game's played over the years, but the fundamentals are the basis of everything."

Unwavering excellence

Mason's mark was a record that many thought was virtually untouchable, on par with baseball Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak of 2,130 (since surpassed, of course, by Cal Ripken Jr.). Like Mason (the former coach at Lake Superior State, Bowling Green and Michigan State), York has accumulated his win total while at the helm of three programs: Clarkson, Bowling Green and now Boston College.

"I really didn't think anyone was going to catch Mason," said Joe Bertagna, the commissioner of Hockey East. "They've had that perfect combination of getting on a roll and Jerry being youthful and surrounding himself with a good supporting staff, like most successful coaches do. All of a sudden you're thinking, not only is he going to catch this record, but he could get to 1,000."

For Bertagna, York's steady assault on Mason's record has a personal connection. Bertagna was a senior goaltender for Harvard in the quarterfinals of the ECAC tournament in 1973, when York's Clarkson squad bumped off the Crimson in Cambridge.

"Jerry was so gracious when I sent him an email, saying 'You realize I was victim No. 17,' " Bertagna said. "And he wrote back and said, 'Probably a 1-0 game.' That was Jerry being Jerry. It was actually 7-4. I got lit up pretty good."

However, the anecdote highlights the fact that York has been at the helm of a Division I program for four decades. York was only 26 -- the youngest head coach in the nation -- when Clarkson tabbed him, then an assistant coach with the Golden Knights, to fill the vacancy created when Len Ceglarski returned to Boston College. Ceglarski had brought the Watertown native to upstate New York shortly after York's three-year varsity career at BC, which included 134 points (64 goals and 70 assists) and the Walter Brown Award in 1967 (given annually to the top American-born player in New England).

In seven seasons at Clarkson, York went 125-87-3, and won an ECAC championship in 1977. He then headed west, to Bowling Green, and won 342 games (with 248 losses and 31 ties, for a .576 winning percentage) and his first NCAA championship in 1984, before returning home. In June 1994, former BC athletic director Chet Gladchuk, after being jilted by former Boston Bruin and current NHL analyst Mike Milbury, brought in York to resuscitate the hockey program.

"BC had dipped down a little bit in the early '90s, and they needed a change," recalled Parker. "They thought were going to get that with Mike, but when he decided that that wasn't where he was going to go, they went out and got Jerry. They almost got him by default, but as it turned out, they got the best guy they could have possibly gotten."

It was a perfect match. York and his staff and players enjoy a supportive atmosphere that allows them to flourish at The Heights. No one understands how crucial that component is more than Parker, his adversary this Friday and Saturday.

"We've been allowed to coach at schools that want good hockey teams," Parker said. "It's not unusual. BC has three coaches that have 500 wins or more (Ceglarski, with 673, and John "Snooks" Kelly, with 501). I've been at Boston University a long time, so I've had a chance to win some hockey games. We both started very young. So when you coach that long, you have a chance to win a lot of games. It's certainly a feather in his cap that he's been at three different schools, and has had fabulous success at all three of them."

York's march on Mason's record reveals an incredible consistency. Only one of York's teams failed to win at least 11 games in any season (his 1991-92 Bowling Green squad finished 8-21-5). Under York's guidance, the Eagles erased 50 years of frustration in 2001, when, after three straight trips to the Frozen Four, they edged North Dakota in overtime to win the program's second national championship, and first since 1949. Including 1998, when York first led the Eagles into the NCAAs, his BC squads have recorded a 32-9 mark in the national tournament and won four crowns.

Inexplicably, York has won only one Spencer Penrose Trophy as the nation's Division I Coach of the Year, for his work with the 1976-77 Clarkson Golden Knights, which won the ECAC title and went 26-8-0.

"He deserves an awful lot of credit, yet it's amazing how little credit he gets," Parker said. "My team wins something, and I get coach of the year. And, like I said, it's probably the assistants, or I got off the bus with the best team. His team wins a championship, and somebody else gets coach of the year. I have no idea why. But I really, truly believe that people don't understand what a good job he's done, and I don't think he ever gets the credit he deserves."

That credit will come soon enough, once wins Nos. 924 and 925 are etched alongside York's name in the NCAA record books. Just don't expect the Boston College bench boss to say much about them.

"I think of the seven athletic directors I've worked for," York said. "I think of the number of assistant coaches who have been involved with me, and what an honor it's been for me to coach some of these remarkable players over the years. As (New England Patriots coach) Bill Belichick mentioned when he got his 200th win -- of course, they play a lot less games -- he said he hasn't scored a touchdown yet. I felt the same way. I haven't scored a goal or blocked a shot. But I've had the privilege and honor of coaching outstanding players."