Legendary Boston University coach Jack Parker announced his retirement today after 40 years behind the bench, and it's a strange day for college hockey.
He is an institution at BU, to the point where the rink on which his team plays is named Jack Parker Rink at Agganis Arena. For tens of thousands of people, perhaps more, in the greater Boston area and throughout the country, Jack Parker is BU hockey, and it's easy to see why.
His 894 wins and counting is the third-largest total in NCAA history, behind only retired Michigan State coach Ron Mason (924) and current Boston College bench boss Jerry York (933), Parker's professional archrival.
But unlike both of those guys, Parker did everything at one school, which is also his alma mater. It doesn't seem like anyone's going to get anywhere near that mark any time soon.
At the same time, I find it difficult to sit here and listen to all this stuff about what a great guy Jack Parker is because his legacy is also what happened off the ice for BU.
The on-ice record, as it so often does with these legendary coaches, speaks for itself. He's 894-471-115 all-time, good for a .643 winning percentage. He's won three national championships, the most recent of which was the famous 2009 comeback against the University of Miami in the title game. He made the NCAA tournament 24 times, and is working on No. 25. He won 21 Beanpots (a Boston-only tournament played between BC, BU, Northeastern and Harvard that the Terriers seem to value over all). If his team picks up two more wins this season this year, it will be his 27th with 20-plus victories, widely considered the benchmark of a successful season in college hockey. He's won the Spencer Penrose Trophy as national coach of the year three times. There were rumors he even might move on to coach the Bruins at a few points in his career.
But perhaps more important to his legacy as a coach is the number of players he sent to the professional ranks. Current NHLers Kevin Shattenkirk, Charlie Coyle, Brandon Yip, Matt Gilroy, Colin Wilson and Nick Bonino all played under Parker. So too did long-timers like Keith Tkachuk, Jay Pandolfo, Tom Poti, Adrian Aucoin, Mike Grier, Chris Drury, and Tony Amonte. A good portion of the Miracle On Ice team also famously played under.
And moreover, in recent years he seems to have turned his team into a kind of coaching factory as well. Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco played for Parker, as did Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan, Avs assistant Dave Quinn, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins head John Hynes, and many others throughout the college ranks all learned the ropes from Parker.
Parker has at least two games left in this season, probably more, and his team seems to have pulled itself from the skids of a disastrous February thanks to a campaign riddled by season-ending injuries, suspensions, and player departures. He earned one of Hockey East's four home ice spots by winning four of the team's last five games, and given the way most of the conference is playing right now, might just be able to add to his trophy collection despite it all.
He is, inarguably, one of the two or three finest coaches in NCAA hockey history and his decision to call it a career on this, his 68th birthday, is well earned and perfectly respectable.
And even beyond all the success, I've always liked Parker personally. In an age of coaches and players spouting "You just have to put your head down and focus on playing one game at a time" pablum, Parker was always honest with everyone about nearly everything to do with his team, and could rip his team in the media like few others. He was, in a lot of ways, a guy you could tell started coaching in the 1970s and didn't change much of his attitudes along the way. He was pleasant when you bumped into him away from the rink. Everyone who ever played for him, besides Vinny Saponari, has nothing but nice things to say about him, and you get the feeling they'd dive in front of a bullet for him. The way he dealt with Travis Roy, a freshman that went headfirst into the boards on his first shift in a BU jersey and never walked again, is legendary for its care and beauty. He has, for some time now, had his team involved with Autism Speaks.
This is what Jack Parker meant to his players past, present, and future, his program, his school, the community, and college hockey as a whole. Jack Parker is BU hockey and probably always will be.
Which brings us back to last winter. Just as the above facts speak for themselves, those below do too, and they exist not independent of each other, but rather frustratingly intertwined.
It was no secret that as he aged in his job, he began to lose a little bit of control of what his guys did during the season. In the early part of this decade, he was forced dismissed a number of players from the team for various infractions, including Vinny Saponari, a Jets draft pick, and his brother Victor, who got the boot for violating team drinking rules among other things. But BU kept on winning and there was a general boys-will-be-boys attitude about the whole thing, so the fact that Parker kicked these rule-breakers out was probably enough to keep everything relatively kosher.
Then last season, in the space of a little more than two months, New York Islanders pick Corey Trivino and Red Wings prospect Max Nicastro were arrested on sexual assault charges, and the whole program turned into a madhouse. Both were kicked off the team immediately, as you might expect, and while the charges against Nicastro were dropped last June, Trivino pleaded guilty to lesser charges of assault and battery on his victim, as well as trespassing.
The incidents prompted Boston University to make a number of changes following a massive task force investigation that found a team-wide alcohol problem, "celebrity culture," and "sexual entitlement" to be at the center of the trouble. Among the recommendations that task force made was eliminating the position of "executive athletic director" Parker previously held so that he had to answer to a higher authority even as he stayed on as coach. The report also found more, unreported cases of sexual assault that took place and, frankly, had some pretty ghastly details and quotes contained therein.
Obviously, not all players on the team acted like this, and probably the majority didn't. But the thing with Parker, which darkens his legacy by about 20 shades, is that he saw this coming down the pike and didn't do much to put a stop to it. Earlier today, Arielle Aronson, who did a great job covering the team in her time at BU's independent student newspaper, imparted some stories about the immediate wake of the Trivino arrest:
"I will never forget Parker telling me he knew something bad would eventually happen with Trivino and how he had only prayed Trivino never hurt anyone else. I will never forget the feeling of how much Parker seemed to regret that he had not been able to do more ahead of time."The fact of the matter is he didn't, and while he can't read minds and can't control his players' actions, he apparently knew many of the wilder details of how these kids were behaving when they weren't at the rink, and did little to rein it in.
Not until it was too late.
He paid some sort of price for that, though. He lost that job title. He lost a lot of face. I'm not sure it's enough.
Joe Haggerty said this morning that Parker actually planned to retire at the end of last season, but following those two arrests and everything that went with them, he decided to stay on one more year. I don't know if that makes him the "definition of a stand-up guy," or simply comes off as a bizarre attempt to pick up the ball he dropped so spectacularly in allowing everything to get to the point it did.
Again it must be said that these horrible incidents don't do anything to take away all Parker accomplished on the ice as a player or behind the bench, but they certainly cast a long shadow, and make his legacy one that's far more complicated than it would have been if he'd retired, say, two years ago. That in turn makes it extremely difficult for me to separate the two issues out. I was told yesterday that the good far outweighs the bad, and if you think winning at hockey is that important, then yes, you're absolutely right.
But there are women walking around today, whether they're still on campus or out in the wider world, who went to that school and are victims of some form of sexual assault, largely because of the culture surrounding the BU hockey program. At least some of them never reported the incidents to authorities. This was uncovered by the task force, though a number of former players said those findings are untrue.
Regardless, this is all extremely troubling stuff, and it happened on Parker's watch. He clearly never encouraged it, but he did let it get out of control.
If Jack Parker is BU hockey, and we can all agree that he is, then just as he's getting all the richly deserved praise for what he did as a coach — he is in every way a legend of this sport —as he rides off in these final few weeks of his final season, he carries with him an indelible responsibility for the bad as well.