October 8, 2012

From NEHJ: College hockey's greatest coach

By Andrew Merritt

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Jerry York’s office isn’t unlike one belonging to any other average middle-aged man in New England. 

Jerry York has led BC to 10 Frozen Fours and nine Hockey East tourney titles. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

Sports memorabilia sits in a tall case, work notes are piled on a table, and photos of his family and friends hang on the walls.

Of course, the sports memorabilia is collected from Frozen Fours and Hockey East tournaments, the work notes are thick binders filled with plays and practice drills, and the photos on the walls show York standing with people such as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and former President George W. Bush.

They are the accoutrements of a life spent in coaching, a life spent making young men into better versions of themselves, a life dedicated to a game. And someday soon, York will be the undisputed king of that game.

He enters this season with 913 career wins — 11 short of the all-time record held by former Lake Superior State, Bowling Green and Michigan State coach Ron Mason. Barring something unexpected, York will surpass that number sometime this season.

*      *      *

Good luck getting him to talk about it, though. With the all-time mark in sight, York says he isn’t reflecting on the years gone by, the triumphs and obstacles, or the many records to which he’s attached his name. He just greets each day the way he always does — “I wake up each morning, get my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, and (ask), ‘What does today bring?’”

There was a time when “greatest coach in college hockey history” would not have seemed to be York’s destiny.

Born in Watertown, Mass., the oldest of 10 children — five boys, five girls — York attended Boston College High School and then Boston College. His father, Robert, was a doctor, a practitioner whose door — the door to the family home — was always open, even “at 3 a.m. if a factory worker cut his hand,” York says now.

Robert York’s oldest son very likely could have become Dr. Jerry York, but he opted to study business at BC. He was an All-American hockey player, a three-year letterman for coach John “Snooks” Kelley, and the 1966-67 winner of the Walter Brown Award, given to the top American-born player in New England.

He also met his girlfriend Bobbie, a West Roxbury, Mass., native whose family had a summer cottage near the Yorks’ in the Green Harbor section of Marshfield, Mass. 

York was an All-American at BC under coach John ‘Snooks’ Kelley. (Photo: BC Athletics)

After graduating, York tried out for the 1968 U.S. Olympic Team, but didn’t make the final roster. After spending a year traveling with the squad that eventually went on to finish sixth in Grenoble, France, York considered becoming a coach, and came back home to BC.

Clarkson

In York’s second year as a graduate assistant at BC, Clarkson coach Len Ceglarski (Walpole, Mass.) called his former Boston College teammate and then-BC assistant Bernie Burke, and said the Golden Knights were expanding their staff, and wanted to know if Burke knew of any potential candidates.

“He says, ‘Well, Jerry’s sitting right here,’” York says, remembering Burke turning to him and asking, “Would you be interested in Potsdam, New York?”

“I said, ‘Well, wait a sec, Bernie, that’s a long way from here.’”

Eventually York warmed to the idea, but he still had to convince Bobbie.

“We were here, she was teaching in the Boston public schools, and we were just dating,” York says, the grin growing into a chuckle as he remembers the big question. “I said, ‘I’d like to get married and have you come to Potsdam with me,’ and she was like, ‘Whoa.’”

Bobbie went along with the plan — “a leap of faith, divine intervention,” York says.

York spent 1970-72 as Ceglarski’s assistant at Clarkson, also coaching the freshman team. When Kelley retired in 1972, York called BC athletic director Bill Flynn to apply for the top job at his alma mater. But BC also was looking at another coach.

“I remember getting a call from Bill Flynn. He said, ‘Hey, I don’t want you to read it in the newspaper. We decided you just haven’t gotten enough experience yet, and we’re going to hire Coach Ceglarski.’”

Better news came three days later, when the Clarkson athletic director told York the department wanted him to take over as the coach of the Golden Knights’ varsity.

York’s head coaching career did not have an auspicious beginning. After winning at least 20 games in their last three seasons under Ceglarski, the Knights stumbled under York. An 18-15-0 debut in 1972-73 gave way to two consecutive losing seasons.

“They were hard, hard years,” says York, who was only 26 when he was hired — barely older than the seniors on his team. “We lived right there on campus, my wife and I; she taught at the local public school. They were used to winning. But it was a combination of things, probably mostly just a novice coach trying to run an ECAC program.”

The hard times in Potsdam didn’t last. York’s first recruit was Dave Taylor, who also quickly became York’s first success. By the time he graduated in 1977, he was the program’s all-time leading scorer, and the Golden Knights had won a regular-season ECAC title.

In York’s final three years, Clarkson amassed a 64-31-0 record, a far cry from those early struggles. But the lean years carried important lessons for the young coach. 

In replacing Ron Mason as Bowling Green's head coach, Jerry York had big shoes to fill.

“Everything,” is what York says he learned at Clarkson. “How to coach, how to handle student-athletes as a head coach. You’ve got to make decisions: Who’s the goaltender? How are you going to recruit? How do you handle the alumni? It was probably, looking back, a great learning environment. Clarkson probably suffered a bit, but it helped me immensely.”

The Blueprint

In 1979, Bowling Green hired York tro replace Mason, who had just guided the Falcons to three consecutive CCHA titles and a third-place finish in the NCAA tournament two years earlier. But the cupboard was bare when York arrived, as stars Ken Morrow and Mark Wells had just departed to become part of the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Olympics, so York’s first two Bowling Green teams went 16-20-2 and 13-24-2, after six consecutive winning seasons.

Yet just as at Clarkson, York persevered. He guided Bowling Green to the NCAA championship, its first, in 1983-84, and the program produced a bevy of talent.

It was that 1984 title that also brought one of the most important elements of York’s coaching career. One of his assistants, Peter Johnson, is the son of Bob Johnson, the legendary Wisconsin coach who guided the Badgers to three NCAA titles during his 16-year tenure. After the Falcons won the national title, Johnson had some advice for his son’s boss.

“He phoned a couple days after the tournament, and he says, ‘The biggest thing you’ve got to do, Jerry, is sit down and devise a blueprint — because you’re a lifer, I can tell you’re a lifer in this business,’” York says. “‘What did you do to win a national championship? From soup to nuts, recruiting, handling problem situations, the type of club you have, how do you handle alumni. Anything you’ve done this year, you have to repeat that.’”

The Falcons didn’t have another losing season until 1990-91, when assistant coach Terry Flanagan was struck with cancer, eventually dying of the brain tumor a doctor discovered after Flanagan had trouble focusing on the road while he and York were driving back from Toronto on a recruiting trip. The Falcons went 8-21-5 in the season after Flanagan’s death, but in York’s final two seasons, they managed to right the ship and go 19-17-2 in 1993-94.

Then, BC came calling.

Homeward bound

By the time BC athletic director Chet Gladchuk sought York’s services in 1994, the Eagles had slogged through three consecutive subpar seasons. York, meanwhile, was coming into a job he’d long hoped to have, and he had a message for Bill Flynn.

“I coached seven years at Clarkson and 15 at Bowling Green, so I had 22 years in coaching when I came here. When I saw (Flynn) at the press conference, he wasn’t the athletic director, but he was there. I said, ‘Bill, I’ve got more experience now,’” York says with a chuckle.

“That’s 18 years ago,” he says, his grin turning wistful as he looks out the window.

What has happened since York came to BC is the crowning achievement of his 40-plus-year career. After a couple of middling seasons, the Eagles took flight under York. They made four consecutive Frozen Four appearances starting in 1998, and they won the NCAA title in 2001, the program’s first since 1949. Led by captain Brian Gionta and goaltender Scott Clemmensen, the Eagles went 33-8-2, edging North Dakota in overtime in the final and earning some revenge over the three teams that had knocked them out of the three previous national tournaments — Maine, Michigan and the Sioux.

What also happened was York implementing his own blueprint for success. Where some teams have a defining characteristic — toughness, high-octane offense, great goaltending — York prefers his squads to have what he calls “the mix.”

“I’ve often thought you’ve got to have a combination of speed and skill, but size and strength, it’s got to be a mixture of those kinds of players,” he says.

BC had the mix in 2001. It also has had the mix pretty regularly for the past five years, in which the Eagles have won an unprecedented three NCAA championships. That includes the 2011-12 team, which steamrolled its way to a national title that felt about as inevitable as such a thing can feel, cemented by a dominating performance in the championship game against Ferris State.

Yet Jerry York’s legacy is more than the banners that hang in Conte Forum, more than the NCAA championship trophies that greet visitors in the hallway to his office at the arena, more than the headlines, the posters, and even the photos with the president.

His legacy is still being written.

Among York’s highlights in 2011-12 was a victory at Fenway Park. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

The York Effect

When Mike Mottau picked up the phone, he thought York was putting on an act.

Sitting at his home in Avon, Mass., some 17 years ago, hearing York’s recruiting pitch, Mottau thought the veteran coach’s affable manner couldn’t be his real temperament.

“I thought there’s no way a college coach is this nice,” Mottau said. “Come to find out that’s exactly who he is, and exactly the kind of person that I wanted to play for.”

Mottau went on to win the Hobey Baker Award in 2000, one of only six defensemen ever to win college hockey’s top individual honor in its 32-year history. He’s one of those many players who York got the best out of, who responded to the coach’s philosophy. Quality play has made York’s squads into good hockey teams, but his quality as a coach goes deeper than the surface of the ice.

“What he really does value is the character of a person,” Mottau says. “I think that’s one of his biggest assets, is creating good teams full of good people.”

Pat Mullane, a junior from Wallingford, Conn., who will serve as captain of the Eagles in 2012-13, says he’s always wanted to go to BC, but even that eagerness took a back seat to awe when he first joined the program.

“I remember the first day, we had our first team meeting, just sitting in the locker room, walking in and seeing Brian Gionta’s picture and Brian Leetch’s picture, and I was very taken aback,” Mullane says. “And then having Coach York walk in the locker room and stand there, it was very surreal. I was very excited to be a part of it.”

Mullane’s awe wasn’t about intimidation, however. York is the living embodiment of the word affable, a soft-spoken gentleman with an easy smile and a quick laugh. 

“I think that’s what makes him special and what makes guys want to play for him, his attitude and how well he treats people,” Mullane says.

Which is not to say Jerry York doesn’t have any edge. Dan Bylsma can attest to that. As a Bowling Green freshman in 1988-89, Bylsma had four goals and seven assists in 39 games. Twenty years before he would become the Pittsburgh Penguins head coach and guide them to the Stanley Cup, Bylsma was in the doghouse with York.

“I remember some very frank and serious and not-so-nice conversations I had with him about where I was at,” Bylsma says. “I specifically remember points in time after my freshman year that things hadn’t gone as well as I’d have liked them to, and having conversations with Coach York, and that being a turning point for me. I know it was motivating for me as a player, and as a person for that matter.”

Bylsma went on to have a fine career at Bowling Green, followed by a solid 11 years as a pro. He is better known now as the man who took over the Penguins in the middle of the 2008-09 season and delivered the Cup to Pittsburgh.

Bylsma has even benefited from a few of York’s former charges coming to play in Pittsburgh, including Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi. 

York's Eagles captured their third national championship in five years last season. (Photo by Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

They all are part of a large and growing fraternity of York players who have turned pro. Since he returned to coach the Eagles, 26 of York’s former BC players have played at least one game in the NHL, and 11 have been selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.

“He understands what it takes for guys to make it to the next level,” Mullane says. “The example that I look at is (Chicago Blackhawks forward) Jimmy Hayes. Coach York always got on him about moving the puck and going to the net, finishing checks, and that was what it takes to be successful at the next level.

“It took Jimmy a while to understand that, and when he did, you look at him now, and he was a 35-game player in the NHL last year, and if there was an NHL this year, I’m sure he’d be there for 65, 70, 80 games. (York) understands the little things, and he makes sure we understand the little things to get to the next level.”

York’s influence also extends beyond the ice. His first recruit, Dave Taylor, turned his successful collegiate career at Clarkson into 17 years in the NHL, followed by his second career as a team executive that now has him stationed in St. Louis as the Blues’ vice president of hockey operations.

The Bowling Green years produced Bylsma, Stanley Cup and Olympic champion Rob Blake (now the NHL’s hockey operations manager) and Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee, who spared few words when asked about his old mentor.

“Jerry has played an integral role in the development of many young hockey players, not just as athletes but as young men,” McPhee wrote in an email to New England Hockey Journal. “He had a tremendously positive influence on me during my time at Bowling Green. He has his priorities in the right order with family and education ahead of hockey, and his success speaks for itself.

“He is perfect for college hockey and represents all that is good about college hockey.”

York has had opportunities to explore the professional ranks himself, particularly with so many of his former players involved in front offices.

“I’ve never had that desire,” York says. “I never thought, ‘Jeez, if I do really well in college, I’ve got a chance to coach the Rangers or the Bruins.’ Though I thoroughly enjoy watching the NHL, it’s the world’s best league and I learn an awful lot from watching it and talking to their coaches, but it’s never appealed to me to coach a team in that particular league.”

So he remains at his alma mater, a short drive from his hometown and a few short months from college hockey immortality.

Some day very soon, Jerry York will be the coach who has won more games than any other. He will be called the greatest college coach there’s ever been, and perhaps the best there will ever be.

And the next day, he’ll wake up, grab his morning coffee, and ask what the day will bring.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Andrew Merritt covers Hockey East for New England Hockey Journal and hockeyjournal.com.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com