Jack Parker stayed on top of game

Jack Parker shares a laugh with current BU players Sean Escobedo (right) and Wade Megan. Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

BOSTON -- When Boston University hockey coach Jack Parker strode into his press conference on Monday -- his 68th birthday -- before the assembled media, his family, his current team and dozens of former players and assistant coaches, there was an overwhelming sense that an era was ending.

The short story was that Parker was announcing his retirement, effective at the end of this season, after four decades behind the BU bench. His numbers -- 894 career wins as of Monday, the most all time at a single school and third overall, a .643 winning percentage, three national championships, 24 NCAA tournament appearances and 21 Beanpot crowns -- ensure that he'll be remembered as a giant of the game.

"It's been a great run, and I had a great time doing it," Parker said succinctly.

But 40 years of sustained excellence won't fit neatly into a short story, and Parker's true legacy is that his accomplishments with the Terriers' hockey program were not only staggering in terms of numbers, but also all but impossible to duplicate due to the shifting landscape of collegiate sports. Even Mike Lynch, BU's athletic director, acknowledged that Parker's legacy all but guarantees that the school's next hockey coach won't be a 28-year-old greenhorn, as Parker was in 1973 when he first took the reins.

"We're going to look for a guy who has a great deal of experience, not only handling the public pressures of this job, which is a lot different from the job he took in the 1970s," Lynch said. "There's a lot more expectations, there's a lot more hype around BU hockey now than there ever has been. Jack's handled it well for 40 years, but the next guy coming in is replacing a legend. That's going to be a very challenging opportunity for someone, but we think it's a great opportunity for someone too."

Parker's ability to adapt to that changing landscape might have been his greatest attribute, said his former players, though they were quick to add that the Somerville native possessed a number of characteristics that made him a successful coach and mentor. Those include his passion for the sport, for his players, for his university and for winning.

"He was strong with X's and O's, but Jack wasn't an X's-and-O's coach," said former player Dave Silk, one of four of Parker's players who helped lead the US Olympic men's ice hockey team to historic gold in the 1980 Olympic Games. "He was all about the W. Just win, baby."

"His true legacy is going to be his character, his wit and his intelligence," said Donald "Toot" Cahoon, the former BU player and assistant coach who went on to coach at Princeton and Massachusetts before retiring last year. "Those three things are the things that will always resonate for me."

Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said Parker was a tireless advocate for not only his program, but the college game as a whole. "He hasn't just sat back and coached his team," Bertagna said. "He's been a voice for advancing the sport."

Bertagna has also felt the heat of Parker's fiery nature, as the commissioner and coach have clashed a number of times over Parker's sometimes public criticisms of league officials.

"I have had some trouble accepting his relationship with officials over the years, and I've got some scars to show for it, as we've gone head-to-head," Bertagna said. "But when you add all these things up, I'm certainly left with great respect for him both as a coach and as a person."

Respect for Parker was on full display on Monday.

"One of the great things about Jack is his passion to coach and teach," said Mike Eruzione, the former Terrier forward who later captained the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" Olympic team. "He just loves what he's doing. He loves BU. Clearly, nobody's been at any school longer. First as a player, an assistant coach, and then a head coach.

"I was in the locker room the day he became the head coach. That was my freshman year. So I was there at the beginning, and I'm honored to be there at the end. His love for the school, his competitiveness -- and trust me, he's competitive -- that's what ties it all together."

Asked what set Jack Parker apart, Ben Smith, a former BU assistant and former head coach of the US Olympic women's ice hockey team, replied, "His determination."

"I always think of when he quit smoking," Smith said. "He was a three-pack-a-day guy. We were out for a sail, June 6, 1982. He lights up a cigarette, takes a puff and throws it overboard, and says 'I quit smoking.' Takes out the pack, lights it on fire and throws that overboard. He went from three packs a day to nothing. No doctors, no hypnotist. Nothing.

"It's his willpower," Smith continued. "Not only was he a great hockey mind, a great tactician, a great recruiter, a great public relations guy. To me -- I feel like I witnessed it -- I feel like he could actually will his team to victory. Being on the bench with him, I could just see and feel the intensity that he had. Which, to me, was just so unique."

For Jack O'Callahan, a former BU captain and, like Eruzione, a member of the 1980 gold medal-winning team, it was Parker's unflinching honesty that stands out. The Charlestown, Mass., native was being recruited by a number of top-flight schools in the mid-1970s, including Harvard and Brown.

But Parker "was one of the few guys, maybe the only guy, that told me when I was coming out of high school, 'Hey, I think you can be a good player, but there's no guarantees. You have to make my team.' I liked that," O'Callahan said in a telephone interview. "He didn't say, 'You're going to come in and play on the power play.' He said, 'You have to make my team. I hope you do, but that's not up to me, that's up to you.'

"What really swayed my decision was that I always felt like I could trust Jack," O'Callahan said. "Over the past 40 years, that's been his hallmark. Players know that they can rely on Jack. He's been straight. You know what you get. And that's it.

"The guy wants to win at all costs, but he definitely cares about his players and he's a man of his word. That's never changed. And I think that's why he's had such great success. He's driven by his personal integrity and his will to win, his competitiveness. That's what really pulled me toward him, and that's been the basis of our friendship for the past 40 years."

Still, the theme of change, and Parker's ability to adapt over his 40 years behind the BU bench, was a common refrain throughout Monday's proceedings.

"It's always been one of Jack's real gifts. He could roll with the changes," said Silk. "Whether it's talking movies or music, Jack kept up. Over time, you have to change. Otherwise, you become a dinosaur and you go away. His ability to adapt with the changes I think is remarkable."

Brian Durocher, the BU women's coach and former BU goaltender and men's assistant, said Parker's intelligence and wit were his defining traits, and those helped him adapt to a new generation of players.

"He went from the iron-fisted ruler who treated everybody one way, and it was his way or the highway, but as time went along, he changed, and really changed with the times," Durocher said. "The needs the kids had, the communication they requested, maybe more so than back in the day when I was a player. The delegation to assistant coaches. Changes in the recruiting. All of those things, Jack did a great job of changing with and I give him an awful lot of credit for being able to read between the lines and see what was going to happen to make himself a better coach. And a longtime successful coach."

Apprised of Durocher's assessment that Parker had developed a "kinder, gentler" approach in his later years, current BU captain Wade Megan couldn't suppress a smile.

"He hasn't mellowed in all the time I've known him, over my four years here," Megan said. "And that's one of the things that's pretty remarkable about him. The passion that he has for the game, and has had for so long. He still gets more fired up than any of us and he has a way of passing that fire on to us during games. It's pretty impressive."

Perhaps most impressive, said O'Callahan, was Parker's ability, over 40 years and 1,481 hockey games, to seamlessly adapt to the changes in the game and the young men who played it, while never abandoning his core principles, and never losing his fire.

"He's evolved as a coach without ever sacrificing his integrity or that aspect of trust or that competitiveness," O'Callahan said. "He hasn't negotiated there."