I didn’t really understand how to react the first time I met him.
OLs and RAs told stories of this mythical creature they called Jerry York, a man who had led Boston College to athletic greatness in a way no other coach had been able to in the school’s 175-plus year history. People described him using only the most dignified labels: loyal, faithful, hardworking, competitive. Never did someone have a bad word to say about him. And most hadn’t even met him, other than the occasional scoreboard appearance at a basketball or football game.
When I applied to BC, I didn’t know anything about college hockey. In New York, when it comes to collegiate athletics, you’re only obligated to cheer for St. John’s on the rare occasion that the Red Storm wins. Other than that, you’re on your own. I took up a fandom with the Florida Gators—something about their blue and orange brought me a warm consistency with my Mets-Knicks-Islanders fandoms. Needless to say, they don’t play hockey in Gainesville.
So when BC took on Southern California last season in football, one that would go down in Yik Yak lore as the “‘Yeah…but we beat USC’ game,” my excitement for the Superfan Zone’s meet and greet with Jerry York was muted at best, apathetic at worst. Nevertheless, given the freezing rain and abnormally cold wind chill for a September evening, I donned my BC hockey jersey over a pullover and stood in line with one of my best friends to get a picture with the legend himself, expecting yet another person involved with athletics to grunt and feign a smile before moving to the next person.
But that’s quite the opposite of what happened. Coach York immediately asked me what hockey team I rooted for with a big smile on his face. We chatted about the Islanders for three minutes, holding up the line as he talked about how close I lived to the Nassau Coliseum, what was the best game I had ever seen—he laughed when I mentioned a playoff game in which former Eagle Brooks Orpik beat the Isles with an overtime goal—and his connection with Marty McInnis, a BC grad who now serves as his assistant coach. We then took the picture, shook hands, and as I left, he said, “I hope to see you again in the future, Mike.”
It’s funny how those things turn out, huh?
I mention that story because everyone who has been involved with Boston College over the last 22 years seems to have a similar tale about Jerry York. But he hates any individual praise. After all, that’s why York coaches a team sport, a fact he constantly makes clear to the media.
But on Friday night, against the University of Massachusetts, York won his 1,000th career game. And with a milestone like that, it’s hard not to recognize the most outstanding career that any coach has ever had in the history of the sport. Only NHL great Scotty Bowman has won more games in his career as a hockey coach than York, with 1,244.
What’s hard is boiling down why he is so successful. A few former players, coaches, writers, and friends helped explain that to me as he approached this milestone.
Molder of men
In his 44-year career split between Boston College, Bowling Green State, and Clarkson, York has coached some of the best players ever to take the ice in a collegiate setting. He has had three winners of the college hockey’s highest honor, the Hobey Baker Award: George McPhee, Mike Mottau, and Johnny Gaudreau. Several of his recent Eagles have become some of the NHL’s biggest stars, including Chris Kreider, Brian Gionta, Cory Schneider, and Kevin Hayes. One in particular, former BGSU star Rob Blake, is now in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Many credit York’s dedication as the biggest key to his success. “I never saw him take a day off in my four years at BC,” former forward Brooks Dyroff said via Twitter direct message. “His approach to coaching the team is something I’ve tried to emulate in my office professional career.”
That’s almost entirely true. In January 2013, York had a detached retina. The injury messed with his depth perception, forcing him to stay off the bench. He returned only three weeks later, donning an eyepatch.
York also has a unique ability to attract players to the college game. Many players, understandably so, want to get to the NHL as quickly as possible. Some see college as a distraction, preferring to spend time overseas to earn a couple of bucks, like next year’s projected No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews, who is playing for the ZSC Lions in Switzerland’s National League A. Others choose the Ontario Hockey League, but let’s not recall Jeremy Bracco.
But York promotes college hockey as THE way to get better, using his charm to help win over any recruit. Greg Joyce, a former sports editor for The Heights who covered the Eagles during their 2012 National Championship run, recalled how ex-captain Tommy Cross said how easy it was for York on the recruiting trail. He would just roll into your living room, give a few-minutes-long spiel about his enthusiasm for BC, and you’d be sold.
Even on the most difficult areas of the recruiting path, York came out on top. Former forward Isaac MacLeod, a British Columbia native, didn’t know much about American college hockey before he came to BC. It’s rare that Canadians choose to venture so far when the OHL is a viable and closer option—in fact, the only current Eagle from our little brother up north is first-semester freshman Michael Kim.
But it didn’t take much for MacLeod to be sucked in by York’s appeal. He loved the idea of learning how to grow off the ice as well as on it, following York’s example. It’s those lessons that stick with him more than the wins and losses. “The humility and grace with which he carries himself, as well as the high standards he holds for those lucky enough to be around him, are what makes Coach York so special,” he said via Twitter direct message.
Mostly, York focuses on his core principle: putting the team first. Pat Mullane, the Eagles’ captain during the 2012-13 season, recalls that as what attracted him to BC in the first place. Mullane was part of York’s 900th and 925th wins, the latter of which put him past Ron Mason as the all-time leading winner in college hockey history. But all York cared about on that day was getting a non-conference win against Alabama-Huntsville during BC’s Winter Break. “When you see your coach putting individual accolades aside for the greater good of the team,” Mullane said via email, “you can’t help but do the same.”
Then again, it’s easy to recruit when you win everything in sight. And his 1,000 wins are even more impressive when you look more closely at them.
As the head coach of the Eagles, York has a record of .500 or better against each of the 11 teams in Hockey East. He has dominated several in particular: UMass, Northeastern, UMass Lowell, Providence, and Merrimack. York’s combined record against those five schools while skipper of the Eagles is an unfathomable 242-82-31, for a winning percentage of .725.
Mike Cavanaugh, head coach at UConn, knows a thing or two about those wins. York is 2-1 against his Huskies in the short time they’ve spent thus far in Hockey East. But for much of his career, the rising coaching star sat on York’s bench as an assistant for 18 years. And he still is in awe of everything his former boss has accomplished.
“A 20-win season in college hockey usually gets you to the NCAA Tournament,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s averaged 20 wins for nearly 50 years.”
York also has a wealth of individual awards to his name. He holds three Hockey East Coach of the Year titles (2004, 2011, and 2014), a CCHA Coach of the Year Award from Bowling Green (1982), and the Spencer Penrose Award for Best Coach in College Hockey (1977 with Clarkson). His most distinguished honor comes from the NHL. In 2010, he won the prestigious Lester Patrick Trophy for Outstanding Contribution to the Sport of Ice Hockey. Fittingly, he earned it alongside Jack Parker, the Hall of Fame head coach of BU.
But, as Joyce remembers, when it comes to wins, York prefers to stick to one primary mantra: “The big wins are the ones that are for trophies.”
Not a problem. York has done that plenty of times, too.
York has led his teams to the NCAA Tournament 22 times, getting as far as the Frozen Four in half of those chances. He has 10 conference titles—nine in Hockey East—and eight Beanpot wins. And, of course, five national championships. Even then, he usually stays subdued. He rarely moved when the Eagles essentially clinched a trip to the NCAA Tournament with Thatcher Demko’s brilliant shutout on the road last season against Notre Dame.
Don’t let his calm demeanor fool you, Cavanaugh says. He is a fierce competitor, whose drive to win is unparalleled, even if he won’t throw a chair across the ice like Bobby Knight. He was particularly excited following the 2001 National Championship win against North Dakota, his first as head coach at BC. The Eagles had plenty of disappointment in the three years prior to that. BC reached the Frozen Four in each of those seasons, including two national championship games. But they never came out on top. When BC finally broke through in 2001, York displayed an enthusiasm that, according to Cavanaugh, cannot be topped.
“For Jerry to do that at his alma mater, and his face that night, the excitement,” Cavanaugh said, “that’s one of the best memories I’ve ever had with him.”
Keeping everything relative
You can’t focus solely on hockey forever without going a little stir crazy. But York knows how to balance the grind with a little personal touch.
York is a devout Christian who often gives the homily at the weekly athlete masses. He has an admirable relationship with his wife, Bobbie, who Joyce says gets more excited for York’s wins than he does. He’s an avid reader who enjoys mystery novels. And of course, he loves grabbing Dunkin’ Donuts on Commonwealth Ave., especially on Mondays after his good friend, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, earns him a free iced coffee.
I could go on filling out the 70-year-old York’s highly impressive dating profile.
People truly remember the personal connections that York takes the time to foster. One is Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, who recalls his first encounter with York. Bertagna, a goaltender at Harvard, faced off against York in the final game of his playing career. Clarkson played the Crimson in the ECAC quarterfinals—Bertagna came out on the losing end, 7-4, handing York his 17th career win. To this day, the two are still close friends, considering how long both have been in the conference, and Bertagna has had a plenty successful career. But it doesn’t mean he forgets that day.
“[Following last week’s BU game,] I have reminded him that he would be two wins away without me!” Bertagna said via email.
None have appreciated it more than Mullane. The year before he was due in Chestnut Hill, Mullane was playing in Omaha, Neb. One day, York visited Mullane to check in on his prospect. This excited the young recruit, who was looking to impress his future coach.
Instead, York had a stern message for Mullane: lose 15 pounds or you’re not going to play next season. So for the rest of that year, Mullane sent York a log of everything he had been eating and how much he was working out. Sure enough, he was ready for practice on day one at the proper weight.
“It will always stick with me that Coach York flew to Omaha to tell me to lose weight,” Mullane said.
One of Mullane’s favorite memories of York comes from the locker room. When not on the ice, he and Cross spend a lot of their time at the golf course—Mullane describes them as not professional level, but fairly good. York, an avid golfer himself, found this out. Desperate to work on his game, York would often corner them in the locker room, grab a piece of PVC pipe, and start taking long swings. “Pat, how is my hip rotation on this?” York would say to his two forwards. “Do you think that is why I’m slicing? Tommy, what do you think of my grip? I think I need to bring my hands a bit here.” It wouldn’t take long for the entirety of the Conte Forum weight room to start figuring out their best way to help York on his golf game.
“He wants to be the best at whatever he does,” Mullane said. “Golf included.”
A love affair with Chestnut Hill
When he’s not with his players at Conte Forum, York can be found chatting with players from other sports. Whenever he has a spare moment during the year, York attends every BC sport imaginable, from football and basketball to baseball and women’s soccer. The rest of the student body can see York at the Plex, swiping cards or at weekly yoga classes.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise for a man who is a lifelong Eagle.
York went to Boston College High School, graduating in 1963 before moving on to the Heights. He played center under legendary head coach John ‘Snooks’ Kelley, notching 64 goals and 70 assists. York earned national recognition for his play—he was named to the All-America team in 1966-67, and was captain and team MVP as a senior.
His greatest moment, of course, came when York was first hired in 1994. His first call was to his brother, Bill—York rejoiced, asking Bill to go out and celebrate the moment he finally got his dream job. Bill of course said yes, expecting to party at a local bar and grab a beer. But as soon as York picked him up, they drove straight to the ice cream parlor to get a sundae. Never too crazy, but just crazy enough for York.
“When Jerry talks about BC, you can see how much he loves the University,” Joyce said.
His love for BC has rubbed off on his players, too. Take a look at any former Eagles’ Twitter account. Whether they’re in the NHL, AHL, USHL, Europe, or elsewhere, they all say a derivation of the same thing: proud BC alum. It’s the first thing Mullane says that York instills in his players.
“Once an Eagle,” Mullane said, “always an Eagle.”
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor