Legendary BU coach Jack Parker retired last spring after 40 years coaching the Terriers. Here, he stands with a bust of another BU Legend, coach Jack Kelley. (Getty Images) Below: Parker speaks during a postgame press conference (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)
For the first time in 40 years, the Boston University Terriers won’t have legendary coach Jack Parker behind the bench. This past spring, after amassing 897 wins (third all-time), 24 NCAA postseason appearances and three national championships, Parker (Somerville, Mass.) called it a career, at least as an active coach (he plans to stay on board at BU in a consulting capacity). But he still has a pertinent, and persuasive, perspective on the college game. So this summer, we caught up with the 68-year-old Parker to get his thoughts on the state of the game.
(Editor’s note: Some of Parker’s answers have been condensed.)
NEHJ: What was the best stretch of college hockey from the past 40 years?
Jack Parker: The period of the late ’80s, early ’90s produced the highest level and the most competitive level of college hockey that we’ve seen. In 1991, we played in the Beanpot final against Boston College, and they put out a first line of (Steve) Heinze, (David) Emma, and Marty McInnis, with Greg Brown on defense and Scott LaGrand in goal. I think Billy Guerin was a third-line player for them. And we put out a first line of (Keith) Tkachuk, (Tony) Amonte and (Sean) McEachern. And David Sacco, who wound up being the second-highest scorer in BU history, was our third-line center. That year, we had 11 guys from that team who went on to make the NHL. BC had a bunch too. But it wasn’t just BC and BU. Maine had terrific players. Providence had terrific players. Not just guys who were going to make the NHL, but guys who would become impact players.
NEHJ: What was it about that era that brought those players to college?
Parker: One, we kept all the good Americans in college, and we got a lot of the good Canadians to come down. We were winning the battle against Major Junior A. Tony Amonte never considered going. Jeremy Roenick was in the same class — they were teammates at Thayer — and he was one of the few guys who went to play Major Junior (Hull, QMJHL) instead. These other guys never considered leaving here to play Major Junior A.
NEHJ: What changed?
Parker: Major Junior A realized they were losing these players, and the quality of their game wasn’t as good. They not only wanted to keep the Canadian players at home, but they wanted to go get American players as well. So there was a concerted effort amongst all three Major Junior A leagues (Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League) to get these kids. They were marketing stuff like “we’re educating our players as well, so it’s the best of both worlds.” Just absolutely incorrect statements, but people were buying it. Then there were people who were buying players. There were kids making $100,000 to come play for a Major Junior A team. I know of a couple individuals who got over $200,000 to play one year of Major Junior hockey.
NEHJ: What are the two biggest issues surrounding Major Junior hockey?
Parker: At the Major Junior level, the minute you play a game, you’re ineligible to play college hockey. They made the draft earlier. Draft them at 15, let them play a game at 16, knowing they can never go to college. If a player is good enough, he stays. If he’s not, he goes back and plays Tier 2 hockey. His career is over. It doesn’t matter to them. What matters is that they didn’t lose him to college hockey. Another thing they did was to prevent kids from moving from one province to another until the age of 18 to play Tier 2 junior hockey. Before, if a kid was a real good player in Quebec, he could go play in the Central Ontario Hockey Junior League. That was a terrific league, because it could draw from other provinces. Their purpose was to keep the kids eligible (for college). The Major Junior A people decided this was bad, so they told the kids they couldn’t leave. So if you didn’t wanted to play Major Junior hockey at 17 or 16 years old, then you have to play Midget hockey. Or you have to play a lousy level of junior hockey until you go to college, because they won’t let you go play at a better level of junior hockey.
NEHJ: So when a kid plays for a Major Junior team, he’s considered professional?
Parker: Yes, by USA Hockey standards, by U.S. college hockey standards. The NCAA considers them professionals.
NEHJ: Are they getting paid?
Parker: Yes, they get paid. Very few of them get paid a lot, but they get expenses and a “salary.” It’s that they get paid over and above expenses. It’s also the fact that you can get traded. It’s like pro hockey, except it’s for kids.
NEHJ: From the time you first took the reins at BU through that golden era of the late 1980s, did you have a sense that you were witnessing something special in college hockey?
Parker: Not really. We had great players in the mid-’70s too, but they weren’t being considered for pro hockey. Ricky Meagher was a great player. Mike Eruzione was a great player. College hockey was good then too. The difference was that 1980 hadn’t happened yet. I’ll bet you 85 percent of the 1980 Olympic team played in the NHL at one time. They all got a shot to play. That opened eyes about college hockey. What did happen in the 1970s was the WHA (World Hockey Association) came along. So there were more jobs, and more competition for the players. The WHA gave college players an opportunity to play. That exposed the college player to the NHL. I can still hear Don Cherry, in his profound wisdom, on national TV saying, “You’ll never win with college kids and Europeans.” But the fact is, people started to win with college kids and Europeans.
NEHJ: As a coach, that had to be really rewarding for you.
Parker: It was nice to see our guys get a chance to play. And in 1980, it was great to see (the USA team capture gold in Lake Placid). It’s still considered the greatest sports moment of the 20th century. It was really something for BU, because there were only four Eastern guys on the team, and all four were BU guys. It was all East vs. West in those days, so it was quite a feather in our cap to have those four guys, and to have those guys be so important on the team.
NEHJ: How have you adapted to the loss of players to Major Junior?
Parker: There’s been a big change in how we have to operate. One approach has been to get older players. There was a team in Hockey East last year that had 28 players, and three players came in as 18-year-olds. Every other player came in as a 21-year-old freshman. That’s really changed the look of college hockey. Even though we haven’t been able to get as many star players, because they’ve gone to Major Junior A, we are still producing the same number of players going to the NHL. I think 33 percent of the players in the NHL were college players. The difference is that we’re not producing the 15-year, 40-goal scorer anymore. We’re producing the guy who can play for five or six years and then move on, because he’s more ready to play because he’s 24 when he graduates from college.
NEHJ: Has that affected parity in college hockey?
Parker: Because BU, BC, Harvard, Cornell, Michigan, Michigan State, the “brand name” schools used get all those good players, the non-brand name schools decided “We’re not going to take the second-best 18-year-old, we’ll go get a 20-year-old and maybe we can compete against these guys.” But now, nobody is getting those skilled guys. So we’re doing the same thing Ferris State is doing. It’s not an accident that schools like RIT and Ferris State and Quinnipiac and Union are in the Frozen Four. Yale won the national championship this year, and the goalie (Jeff Malcolm) was 24, and the guy who got the winning goal, the captain (Andrew Miller), was 24. It’s difficult for (BU’s) Danny O’Regan to come in as an 18-year-old freshman and play against a 24-year-old.
NEHJ: Given that, how would you rate the game today? And what are some of the specific challenges facing it?
Parker: The biggest change in the game is the kids. This isn’t just in hockey; this is America. There’s a feeling of entitlement, or an inability to face adversity. A kid is in a hockey situation at 15, and he’s not the first-line center, so Mommy and Daddy take him to another hockey situation. Or he is the first-line center, and he’s getting all these points, and then he gets to college and he’s amongst a bunch of guys who were the same as him, and he’s got to play third-line center. And he doesn’t like that, and Mommy and Daddy are unhappy, and he moves on. The grass always looks greener.
NEHJ: Tony Amonte said the same thing when he took the Thayer job.
Parker: Yeah, kids are jumping everywhere. If they don’t like what’s going on, they go somewhere else. The other thing is that the economics of the game has changed. A lot of kids are priced out of the sport. So not only do you have a different kid, but you’ve actually limited the pool. If you take out the kids whose parents don’t make $200,000 a year, that’s a lot of kids. I’m not saying that’s true of every family, but it’s an expensive sport.
NEHJ: It is tough, especially when you add the cost of the leagues …
Parker: It’s unbelievable how much these people are paying. It’s all money-driven. The rinks own the leagues, so the rinks want you there. The whole thing is pricing a lot of kids out.
NEHJ: How about the game itself? Comparing the game from the mid-1970s to now, what do you see as the biggest changes?
Parker: The coaching has gotten much better, and teams are over-coached. We’ve always over-coached our team. We’re not allowing the player to be creative, allowing the player to make a mistake, and feel comfortable. Allowing a player to get “outside the system” and not play one way all the time. That’s been of a detriment. In other ways, the coaching is much better. The players are getting better coaching as far as skating and shooting and puck handling.
NEHJ: It’s been said that the NCAA doesn’t “get” hockey, that it’s not a sport that fits neatly into the NCAA model. Is the NCAA a real stumbling block for the sport?
Parker: The NCAA is a stumbling block for a lot of sports. The NCAA has three sports — football, basketball, and all others. And they don’t care about “all others.” Basketball rules the roost, because they pay the piper. We don’t need basketball-oriented people running hockey, but that’s what we’ve got, because the NCAA is forced to pay attention to basketball.
NEHJ: What would you like to see change?
Parker: The NCAA should be broken up, like the Olympics. There’s a federation for Olympic hockey, there’s a federation for Olympic basketball, there’s a federation for track and field. Those people run their sports. The NCAA isn’t one size fits all. The NCAA thinks they have rules that apply to everybody, but they don’t. Some don’t make any sense for one sport compared to another.
NEHJ: How about changes with the on-ice product?
Parker: The NHL decided to put in a new standard of calling penalties to let the skill guy play. And they were successful in a lot of ways. I think college hockey should adopt that. In college hockey, from game to game, league to league, from night to night, I don’t know what a penalty is. The referees are doing the best job they can. It’s just that we have refused to come together and accept a standard. If you ask 10 hockey coaches in Hockey East what a hooking penalty should be, you get 10 different answers, depending on what style of play they have, or what quality of player they have. It’s up to the commissioners, and the NCAA, to say: “These are the rules, and we don’t care what the individual coaches think. This is for the good of the game.”
NEHJ: How about the Major Junior issue. Any changes on the horizon?
Parker: We’re on the road to being more effective, but it’s a long road. There’s so much money involved. And there’s so many kids who believe that they’re going to make it, and that’s the best way to make it. They’re winning that battle, and they’re going to continue to win that battle. What would really help is a change in the rule — and the coaches could change this tomorrow if they wanted to — to get the NCAA to say we’re not going to make every kid ineligible just because he played two games in Major Junior A. If he played any games before he was 17, it doesn’t count. After that, he’s ineligible.
NEHJ: What’s the roadblock to that vote taking place?
Parker: They’re not on the same page. Some coaches don’t want those guys, because they’re winning (without them). Or USA Hockey doesn’t want those guys, because they want more Americans playing. Everybody’s got an agenda.
NEHJ: How about on the development side?
Parker: There was a real concern that we weren’t producing Tony Amontes or Scotty Youngs or Craig Janneys anymore. That’s changed. We took a dip, but now we’re back up. I remember going to a Midget game about two years ago, and there were six or seven kids in that one game of freshmen and sophomores that I would have given scholarships to. That wasn’t going on in the 10 years before that. So I think Massachusetts has come around again. It’s cyclical. And it didn’t hurt that the Bruins won (in 2011).