January 13, 2013

From NEHJ: Head of the class, and a class act

By Andrew Merritt

With his 925th win, Jerry York became the winning college hockey coach of all time. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

The cover of the October issue of this magazine has the words “Master Class” splashed across a photo of Jerry York. Both of those words were chosen with a great deal of care.

See, it’s one thing to be good. There are a lot of good coaches out there. There are lots of games and awards to be won, notoriety to be earned and hyperbolic accolades to have thrown at you. Hyperbole is the coin of the realm in sports, it seems, where we always want bigger, faster and better.

But you don’t have to be hyperbolic when you talk about Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.). You can just start quoting numbers.

Five national titles. Nine league titles. Six Beanpots. Three Hobey Baker Award winners. And now, we have a new number to quote: 925. The number that makes him the winningest coach in the history of college hockey.

But then again, we can’t yet say how many wins York has in his career, because he’s still going. Those numbers above, and the 925 that precedes “career wins” on York’s résumé, all have “… and counting” attached. Nevertheless, if there was still doubt that York is the king of college hockey, that doubt was erased in Minneapolis, of all places, against Alabama-Huntsville, of all teams, on Dec. 29. York’s Boston College Eagles won, like they had 456 times before, like the Bowling Green Falcons had 342 times under York, like the Clarkson Golden Knights 127 times before that.

But the numbers, as usual, don’t tell the whole story. Numbers are what we put in our record books. They’re lifeless. You can have a lot of games in the “W” column on your personal ledger and not deserve the title of “great coach.” There has to be more.

With Jerry York, there is more. There always has been. In a fine position to be arrogant, York is anything but, and his humility is not an act. When the all-time coaching wins record grew near, he came up with an answer to a question he was getting asked a lot — I know, because I was one of the people who asked him. When reporters wanted to know what he’d do the day after being crowned the king of all college hockey coaches, he got in the habit of saying he’d go to Dunkin’ Donuts as usual, get his usual coffee order, and maybe the clerk would slide him a free congratulatory corn muffin.

In a sports world so dominated by ego, so riddled with contrivance and graphics packages and slow-motion sentimentality, it’s easy to dismiss York as a fake. There’s no way, you tell yourself, that a guy that successful is really that aw-shucks, down-to-earth. But in the end, York’s “realness” is a big reason why he stands where he does now, above every other man to ever work in his profession. He’s the embodiment of “gentle but firm,” the loving grandfather who will still shoot you an icy cold glare if you step out of line. He’s never been a taskmaster, he simply expects his players to live up to their best potential.

York is something of an anachronism. He’s anything but “new school,” and when he mentioned Twitter in a recent press conference, the reporters in attendance had a good laugh. Jerry York? Twitter? No way.

Yet he has for many years had an innate ability to relate to the young men put in his charge. He gets the best out of them not by pushing them to the limit, but by giving them room to excel. They have repaid him with years of success and enough trophies to fill just about every inch of the hockey wing at Conte Forum. There’s no reason to think more won’t come.

In the meantime, we are afforded a rare opportunity to witness greatness even as it rewrites itself. York’s name now belongs with Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, with Texas’ Augie Garrido — the men who hold the all-time wins record in their respective Div. 1 sports. York is among the immortals now, yet he’s anything but an immortal. He’s relatable, soft-spoken, sparing with negativity.

It had been a long day. After spending the afternoon in Woonsocket, R.I., for this month’s “HockeyTown” story, I was beat, and I was off my game. BC had just tied Providence at Schneider Arena, an unlikely result made even more so by the fact that the Eagles were leading with 10.6 seconds to go, and then with 10.5 seconds to go had lost their lead on a dramatic late Providence goal. Writers erased their lead paragraphs as overtime stretched on, and when the final horn sounded, I admit, I felt a little dejection, knowing I wasn’t going to see York break a record that not that long ago didn’t seem terribly breakable. So I asked him in the press conference about what his players would have to do in the wake of a difficult loss.

“I thought it was a tie,” York said, that familiar grin crossing his face. He had me. He could have ended it right there, Belichick-style (and I deserved as much). But he answered the question anyway. Jerry York isn’t about making anyone look bad.

We use the term “class act” entirely too much in sports. Simply never being involved in a scandal seems to be the sole requirement for that term now. So we need a better term for people like York, for the figures who do things the right way, who get the most out of their players, who treat everyone they meet with respect.

Until we find that term, perhaps we can at least think of Jerry York, first and foremost, when we think of the words “class act.” It’s just one of many titles York has earned, whether he’ll admit it or not.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 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