BOSTON (CBS) – I’ve worked in the media for nearly a decade with much of that time spent fully engulfed in the world of hockey.
No matter the level of the game I’ve occupied, I’ve long heard about how great a man Boston College head coach Jerry York is. Having not met him until recently, I’d always think, “Well, I’m sure he’s a nice guy. Nobody has a bad word to say about the man. Still, is he this good? No man is universally so well-liked!”
Now in my first season broadcasting Eagles hockey games, I’m writing to set the record straight, if only for my own edification.
Jerry York is your grandfather, the one with the twinkle in his eyes every time he sees you, surrounds you with a certain calmness and comfort, and takes you shopping to your favorite toy store and buys you anything you want.
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Jerry York is your favorite professor, the one whose class is at 8:30 on a Friday morning and yet you still manage to show up early for it after a night at the bars because you’re just looking forward to it that much.
Jerry York is the real-life version of a book you love to read – you know, that one you keep thumbing through saying, “one more chapter until bed, just one more chapter,” but never put it down because it leaves you hanging on every word.
You get the idea.
In the hockey world – and most especially at Boston College – the man is an institution. The 1967 BC grad is now in his 18th season leading his alma mater and in his 40th year as a head coach after previously spending significant time at Bowling Green and Clarkson. He’s closing in on 900 career wins, he’s college hockey’s second all-time winningest coach (a mere 36 wins shy of the record), he’s won four national championships, countless other awards and trophies, and he’s a local boy from our backyard in Watertown.
But, this article really isn’t about the numbers. It’s about the man.
I just returned from a three-day excursion to South Bend, Indiana, with the Eagles to announce a game heard on The Sports Hub that was immediately referred to by the folks at the new Compton Family Ice Arena as the “greatest hockey game ever to take place at Notre Dame.”
While that may be a stretch, it was an incredible contest. The nationally third-ranked Eagles and number four Fighting Irish fought to the finish as BC had the potential tying goal waved off – foolishly and without the use of replay – only to then tie the contest with just 2:10 remaining to force overtime. In the extra session, Notre Dame scored the decisive goal for a 3-2 win with just 1.1 seconds remaining on the clock. If not for the fact that it’s the regular season and there are still plenty of games to go, it was heart-breaking.
York, though, followed that game with a number of different speeches to his players and staff. I imagine one came immediately in the locker room as disappointment still wafted through the air. I then witnessed another following a very quiet and solemn team meal at a lovely Italian restaurant shortly thereafter. A third talk came before the flight home from Chicago in a big huddle after the two-hour bus ride from Indy to O’Hare.
Specifics of these talks aren’t important. The message was.
“You played a great game,” York told his players a number of times. “Hold your heads high because you’re just as good as Notre Dame [a team that fell just two wins short of a Frozen Four title in 2010-11].”
If that game happened 10 times, each team probably would have won five. Heck, considering the refs flubbed that second period goal call – fact, not opinion – and BC nearly did win only further proves the point. Still, not a single player complained during postgame interviews. Instead, they tipped their proverbial caps to the Irish.
His chat with his players was not a novel one, but it didn’t have to be. It was captivating. Everything the man does is captivating, and it trickles down to his players.
You’d think they’re the Yankees to a certain extent – and I say that as a Red Sox fan. The boys are all clean-shaven with reasonably short-hair. I’m not sure you’ll ever see a York disciple with a bushy beard and hair flowing from his helmet. It’s not the way things are done at BC, and yet there’s no obnoxious mandate of such a standard. The players are happy to do it. They even stand a certain way during the national anthem, helmets wrapped in one arm and their sticks held just so in the other. I’m told former Eagle and current Tampa Bay forward Ryan Shannon jokes that you can always tell a BC guy around the NHL, just from the way he stands during that salute to America.
As for the travel, the boys look like men, each decked in perfectly pressed suits, shirts and ties like they’re off to a business meeting or their first job interviews. That includes the staff. You think I wanted to wear a suit for a day’s worth of travel? I’m far more comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. But the expectation is professionalism and, after traveling with teams in the past who wear track suits and skullcaps, the difference in presentation is staggering. It’s the NHL of the collegiate ranks.
Such a routine wouldn’t necessarily fly for a team that wins a dozen games or so a year. The skate-wearing Eagles win, though, year-in and year-out, and it’s been that way for nearly two decades under the guidance of York.
Most important, that example has been in such long standing that it filters with ease down to his players from class to class. Boston Bruins second round pick and top defensive prospect Tommy Cross is one of many NHL selections and future members of “The Show” to reside on this team. That said, if you tried to pick them out of a line-up based on personality, attitude or swagger, you’d have a better chance of beating them on the ice.
Cross captains the team now as a senior, but to a casual observer like me, he’s quiet, well-mannered and leads by example. He carries extra bags and treats virtually every situation like the rush for the tunnel after pregame warm-ups. In other words, “after you, guys, I’ll pull up the rear.”
In the pros – at least in some places – you could say he does the grunt work typically relegated for rookies or, in this case, freshmen. I even saw him distributing boarding passes to his teammates at the airport.
To a certain degree, maybe that’s just Tommy’s personality. I’d be willing to bet, though, that it’s largely because of three-plus years with Jerry York.
I always thought when I’d meet Jerry for the first time, I’d have to track him down, introduce myself, and hopefully steal a minute or two of his time. That’s not the way it happened.
It was last month before a bus trip to New Hampshire to play the Wildcats, my first game with the team. I waited outside the bus reading an email on my phone, as there was still plenty of time before our departure.
A tall, fit, smiling, white-haired man walked up to me and tapped me on the arm. I looked up and immediately knew who it was but before I could say anything, he extended his right arm for a handshake and said, “You must be Adam. I’m Jerry York. I understand you’ll be calling some games for us this year. That’s great, welcome. We’re gonna have a fun season.”
Most of our conversations since have started the same way, with him approaching me for a chat. It’s just the kind of guy he is and, in sports, that’s unique.
Jerry York is the true professional. Or, I suppose, he is what everyone’s already been saying for years and I’m just finding out. I guess I was just fashionably late to the party.
Adam Kaufman, a native of Massachusetts, joined the Sports Hub as an on-air personality in June 2011. He has worked as a television and radio anchor and broadcaster for various outlets since 2004, and his written views on sports and entertainment have appeared on NESN.com and in the New England Hockey Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamMKaufman.