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The big score: This much we know: The Jerry York era has arrived
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Photograph of Jerry York and the BC hockey team


BY TOBY LESTER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LEE PELLEGRINI


If you get to the Kelley Rink in Conte Forum a few minutes before the BC hockey team turns out for practice, the air is cold, the lights shockingly bright. The only sound comes from up near the ceiling, a steady fluorescent hum. All of the 8,000 or so seats in the house are empty. From the rafters hang rows of championship banners and retired jerseys. The ice, freshly passed over by the Zamboni, is unblemished, luminescent. It beckons.

As the players arrive, in full gear and color-coded practice jerseys, a few skate languorously on their own, noodling around with pucks, unloading a shot or two at an empty net, fussing with the tape on their sticks. Others, in pairs and small groups, begin to dart about playfully, swooping across the ice, passing pucks back and forth. Here and there they stop abruptly--and then they're off again, working on their stick-handling, trying out fakes, and taking shots. Scores of pucks litter the ice. A few clusters of players lean idly against the boards, and every so often a teammate glides over, coming to a halt with a spray of ice. There's banter, laughter, and a powerful sense of virtuosity only slightly restrained.

Before long close to 30 people are on the ice. Players and coaches and pucks move about in every direction, at every speed. The air reverberates arrhythmically with the clack clack clack of sticks on ice, pucks against boards. And then Coach Jerry York--skating along the boards in a baseball cap, sweats, and a crimson BC windbreaker--sounds a whistle. The players merge into a collective sprint around the outside of the rink. For a second, an eerie silence seems to hang in the air. Then, as the skaters pick up speed, there comes a ghostly whoosh.

Jerry York came to Boston College as head coach in 1994. BC had been a hockey powerhouse under the legendary watch of John ("Snooks") Kelley (1932-42; 1946-72) and Len Ceglarski (1972-92), but by the early 1990s the team was struggling. In two seasons under Steve Cedorchuk (1992-94), the Eagles won only 24 of 74 games. They suffered embarrassing tournament defeats--when they managed to qualify at all. There was a scholarship scandal. Cedorchuk was fired, and the Boston Bruins' Mike Milbury arrived as Cedor-chuk's replacement--only to flee shortly thereafter, without coaching a single game. As one sportswriter put it at the outset of York's tenure, "If the time-honored adage that adversity builds character is true, BC fans entered this season with quite enough character, thank you. Can we please start having some fun?"

Nobody would think of asking that question now. By early March of this year, as the postseason National College Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament began, the Eagles were ranked second in the nation. They had scored more goals per game than any other team in the country. They had just decisively beaten their archrival, Boston University, in the Beanpot tournament. They had easily won the regular-season Hockey East title; they had won the Hockey East tournament for the third time in four years; and they were headed, for the fourth straight year, to the Frozen Four--the NCAA tournament games that start with the semi-finals and end in a championship.

The individual accomplishments were adding up, too. The star attraction was the team's captain, the senior forward Brian Gionta. A small, explosive, and astonishingly versatile player, Gionta had already become BC's all-time leader in goals scored, hat tricks scored, shorthanded goals scored, goals scored in a single period, and goals scored in a single game. He had been named the Hockey East player of the year, had been nominated for the third year in a row as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award (a sort of national MVP pronouncement), and was a co-winner of the Walter Brown Award (for the best American-born college hockey player in New England). In January, in a dizzying performance against the University of Maine, he had scored five goals in a single period--a modern-day NCAA Division I record.

Gionta was by no means the only story. Senior Bobby Allen, one of the team's assistant captains, had been named the best offensive defenseman in the Hockey East league. The team's other assistant captain, senior Mike Lephart, had been named the league's best defensive forward. Freshman forward Chuck Kobasew had been named the Hockey East rookie of the year. Kobasew was the team's second-highest scorer, and Ben Eaves, another freshman, led the team in assists. The team's eight freshmen, in fact, had combined to register a third of the team's goals and points.

Jerry York wasn't having a bad year either: he had coached his 600th victory, had moved up to sixth on the all-time win list for college hockey coaches, and had been selected as the ice hockey National Coach of the Year for 2000 by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

But in March, with the NCAA tournament looming, nobody involved with BC hockey was dwelling much on past honors. Twice in the three preceding years the Eagles had played in the championship game, only to suffer heartbreaking defeats--first, in 1998, to the University of Michigan, 3-2, in sudden death overtime, and then, in 2000, to the University of North Dakota, 4-2. In 1999 they had lost to Maine in the semifinals, again in sudden death.

The Eagles, in fact, had a disappointing, if distinguished, history--not unlike that of the Boston Red Sox--of almost going all the way. Between 1950 and 1994, when Jerry York arrived, they had played in the Frozen Four 11 times without once managing to win a national championship. Invariably, the teams were strong, and BC regularly funneled players into the professional National Hockey League (among them, recently, Jeff Farkas, Steve Heinze, Brian Leetch, Marty Reasoner, and Kevin Stevens), but for the long-suffering supporters of BC hockey, that just wasn't enough. The Eagles had taken the title once, in 1949, when they beat Dartmouth College, 4-3, but that was ancient history. Sensing a sore spot, fans of opposing teams had in recent years devised a simple and effective way to taunt BC during tournament play: they jeered, "1949! 1949!"

To say that Jerry York's life has been touched by Boston College would be an understatement. Born in 1945, he was raised in Watertown, four miles from the Heights, and graduated from Boston College High School in 1963. He was a standout hockey player in high school and went on to play at BC, where (like Brian Gionta) he made a name for himself as a fast, highly skilled player; set a league record by scoring five goals in a single game; became one of the school's all-time leading scorers; was elected captain; was voted an All-American; won the Walter Brown Award in 1967, his senior year; and played on the losing side in the NCAA final (in 1965).

York studied business administration as an undergraduate and initially wanted to be a trial lawyer. "But after I graduated," he says, "I changed my mind. I thought I might like to work in education, be a guidance counselor." In pursuit of that goal, he returned to BC and completed an MA in education. In 1969, while York was working as Coach Snooks Kelley's graduate assistant assigned to intramurals, Len Ceglarski, then head coach at Clarkson University in upstate New York, called Kelley looking for an assistant. Kelley suggested York.

So began the career of one of the most successful college hockey coaches of all time. York succeeded Ceglarski at Clarkson in 1972 (when Ceglarski moved over to BC); at 26, he was the youngest head coach in the nation. In 1979 he moved to Ohio to be the head coach at Bowling Green, and over the course of the next 15 seasons his teams qualified for the NCAA tournament six times, winning a national championship in 1984.

At the age of 55, Jerry York has a slender build that seems more a runner's than a hockey player's. He's clearly still very fit. He dresses crisply, whether he's in a coat and tie for a game or just practice sweats. He's got a head of short, neatly groomed silver hair, a ruddy complexion, and droopy, playful eyes.

When I first met York, this past March, he beamed me a huge smile, grabbed my arm with one hand, and, in lieu of a handshake, gave me a thwap on the back with his other hand. Guiding me by the arm into his office, he told me what an exciting time it was for the team. I started to ask a hockey question, but he gently cut me off. "What about you?" he asked. "Tell me about yourself."

The question wasn't at all affected. A good measure of York's success as a coach seems to come from his unassuming nature. He's approachable. He pays respectful attention. Players, assistant coaches, office support staff, University officials, fans, members of the press--all get the smile, the thwap on the back, the sense of personal connection. "He's a gentleman, on and off the ice," I was told by Bill Cleary, who for years coached the Harvard hockey team against BC. Everybody I talked with about York echoed that sentiment.

I asked York about his coaching style. "We play a pressing, on-the-puck kind of game," he said. "We work on old-fashioned discipline and fundamentals." Later he added, "More than anything, you know, coaching is a people job. It really is. What we try to do is establish a whole hockey culture, a family atmosphere where players and managers are all brought together and where every day on the job is a feel-good day. That's what you need for success on a continual basis."

A few days later I turned up at the Eagles' locker room to watch a practice. In the entryway, awash in the spotlight of a Channel 7 camera, stood Brian Gionta. A young reporter held a mike up to Gionta's face and was peppering him with questions; standing at attention, Gionta answered with the studied earnestness of a pro athlete, as other players brushed quietly past. On a coffee table in the team's meeting room was an article from that day's Boston Globe ("BC Hockey in Pursuit of Final Goal"). Playing on a big TV near the door was a videotape of the Fox sports channel's coverage of the March 17 Hockey East championship game, between BC and Providence College. Players lounged around in armchairs, watching the screen with amused detachment. At the back of the room, sitting with his father and quietly taking in the scene, was a visiting high school recruit dressed in jeans and a T-shirt--only a junior but already a top prospect. Next door, in the locker room, players were changing into shorts and T-shirts.

With the tact and grace of a diplomat at a cocktail party (but wearing gray sweats, a gray T-shirt, and running shoes), Coach York moved from room to room, joking with the players in his healthy Boston accent; conferring with the assistant coaches; consulting with the equipment manager and the trainer; introducing members of the press to his players; stopping to explain to the high school recruit how practices are run; chatting with the Zamboni driver. But as he socialized, he was also quietly and expertly drawing his players and coaches into the players' lounge for his pre-practice talk. The subject that day: the Frozen Four.

The Eagles traveled to Albany on Thursday, April 5, for their NCAA semifinal game, against Michigan, the nation's fifth-ranked team. Earlier in the day fourth-ranked North Dakota, who had defeated BC for the championship the year before, had upset top-ranked Michigan State, 2-0.

The games were played in the 10-year-old Pepsi Arena, in the heart of downtown Albany. All 17,500 seats were sold out. At opposite sides of the stadium sat large blocks of BC and Michigan fans, chanting and swaying and generally abuzz. The BC side was a sea of gold--T-shirts of gold, faces painted gold, even the occasional head of hair dyed gold. Giant foam "We're No. 1" hands bobbed up and down in the crowd. Both schools' pep bands kept the noise level jacked high.

Up in the rafters were banners for every team that has won an NCAA hockey championship. Michigan's banner was crammed full of dates, including 1998, when its team had beaten BC in overtime. The Wolverines had won the tournament nine times, more than anybody. North Dakota had seven dates on its banner, including 2000, when its team had beaten BC. In contrast, the BC banner was a forlorn sight, bearing only one date: 1949.

For much of the game against Michigan, the Eagles dominated, and by the middle of the second period they led 3-0. But then Michigan scored--and early in the third period they scored again. With only a minute left to play, and the game at 3-2, the Wolverines pulled their goalie, put in an extra forward, and made a final push to tie. For a nerve-wracking 40 seconds, Michigan's players pressured BC furiously--until, with 20 seconds to go, BC's Ben Eaves intercepted the puck and slid it halfway across the ice into the open Michigan goal. Game over. Next up would be North Dakota and the championship match.

A good way of registering the tension level at a hockey game is to watch the bench. During a game, the players sit and the coaches stand behind them. At crucial moments, the players all stand, straining their necks to see what's happening on the ice. If things get really tense, the coaches hop up onto the bench, to see over the players.

You'll rarely find Jerry York up on the bench. Always dressed impeccably for games--in a smart coat and tie, with a pen tucked tidily into his coat's breast pocket--he watches the action unfold without much display of emotion. With his arms folded, he sways a bit from side to side, every now and then stroking his chin or shooting a glance up at the clock. From time to time he pages carefully through a blue spiral notebook and jots down a few words. Whenever there's a pause in play, he crouches behind the players on the bench and speaks quietly, delivering a few thwaps on the back. If things heat up, he might run his hand quickly through his hair. The only time he is likely to stand on the bench is in the late stages of a very close game--during a dangerous breakaway, say.

In this year's final against North Dakota, York was on and off the bench almost from the outset of the game.

Up in the crowd that Saturday night, deep in a sea of BC fans, a student held aloft a sign that read, "Every game is payback time--Maine, Michigan, North Dakota." Maine had beaten BC in the Frozen Four in 1999, and this year BC had paid them back, in the quarterfinals. Michigan had beaten BC in 1998; this year BC had paid them back, in the semifinals. Now, surely, it was North Dakota's turn. And, for most of the game, victory did seem inevitable. After a scoreless first period, Chuck Kobasew scored a power-play goal five minutes into the second period, and Mike Lephart followed, not long after, with a wrist shot from the right side.

With just over four minutes to go in the game, however, things started to go badly wrong. BC was called for having too many men on the ice. The penalty gave North Dakota a one-man advantage, and, with nothing to lose, North Dakota's coach Dean Blais decided to pull his goalie, thereby giving his team a temporary six-on-four advantage. Suddenly the ice was swarming with green jerseys. North Dakota quickly managed to get a shot on goal--and scored. The North Dakota fans roared with delight. Blais put his goalie back into the net until the one-minute mark, and then, with the score still 2-1, he pulled him again. Incredibly, improbably, with just over 30 seconds left, North Dakota scored again. The game would go into sudden-death overtime.

In the press area, as the Zamboni cleaned the ice and the teams regrouped in the locker rooms, the newspaper reporters were visibly flustered. The stories they had been readying, about BC's relentless march to victory, were suddenly useless. A reporter for the Boston Globe tapped nervously at his laptop's delete key. He thought for a few seconds and then typed a new lead: "Hold that euphoria."

Sudden death: In the first minutes, North Dakota twice had a breakaway and a chance to put the game away, but BC's goalie Scott Clemmensen managed a pair of saves--one a deflection with his leg pad, and the other a stop with his glove--that kept the Eagles alive. And then, almost before anybody knew it was happening, BC's Krys Kolanos took a pass on the left side at North Dakota's blue line, moved past a defender, and was racing, alone, toward the North Dakota goal. He deftly pulled the puck leftward across the mouth of the net, got the goalie off-balance, and, at close range, flicked a wrist shot into the right corner of the net.

It was over. The BC players poured over the boards and onto the ice to mob Kolanos. NCAA officials began scooting an awards table out onto the rink. Photographers, TV cameramen, and interviewers followed, shuffling about in street shoes as they tried to chase down BC's exultant players, most of whom were either entangled in a sprawling team hug or skating around in circles, pumping their fists in the air. The ice was littered with helmets, sticks, and gloves. North Dakota's players, stunned, stood or knelt along the sidelines. Up in the press area, the Globe reporter quickly erased "Hold that euphoria" and typed a new lead: "Catharsis was unimaginably sweet."

At the BC bench, far from the action, Jerry York exchanged a brief, joyful hug with his assistant coaches. Then he pulled away. He ran his hand through his hair, adjusted his tie, and tapped his pen down into his pocket. For a brief, solitary moment he surveyed the mad scene. Everything was in order. Smiling, he stepped out onto the ice to join his boys.

Toby Lester is a freelance writer based in Boston.


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