Q&A: A Few Minutes With Jerry York
Boston College men’s ice hockey coach Jerry York ’67, MEd. ’70, recently led his team to its third national title in the last five seasons and fourth since he took over as head coach in 1994. After 40 seasons as a college head coach (including seven at Clarkson University and 15 at Bowling Green), York has 913 career victories – the most of any active coach – and five NCAA titles. He will likely surpass former Michigan State mentor Ron Mason (924 career victories) as the winningest coach in the history of the sport sometime next fall. Chronicle caught up with York as he worked though his daily exercise regimen on a stationary bike in the Conte Forum weight room.
This is the fourth time you have coached BC to a national championship. Does winning ever get “old hat” after so much success?
Never. They are all separate and they are all unique memories. You think of the 2001 championship in Albany, then all of sudden, you are in Denver in ’08 and Detroit in ’10 and now, it’s Tampa in ’12. There is none that is above any other – but each, in its own, is an unbelievable experience for everybody that was involved. Part of what makes them special is what winning a championship also means to your coaches, your players, the student body, the alumni and the “subway alumni.” We all take this ride that is an incredible experience for all of us.
The most recent is the freshest in your mind, but they are all very, very special. They are memories that we all can share.
The 2011-12 season is now in the books and the NCAA trophy is in the display case. Is it time to relax a little bit?
I always say that when you win a national championship, the season never ends. First, we had the celebration on campus [April 10], then in rapid fire, we made appearances at a Bruins playoff game, a Red Sox baseball game, and this year, with [Boston Celtics coach] Doc Rivers having talked to our team, we even expect to go to a Celtics’ playoff game. There will be a White House trip fairly soon, and our own Pike’s Peak Club banquet where we finish up our year in-house.
All of that has become part of a “magical tour,” but that’s the kind of spring you really like to have. We’ll also be going to the American Collegiate Hockey Association convention in Florida, and of course, we are always conscious of recruiting – that process never ends. Hopefully, we’ll get in a few golf outings for our staff. We always look forward to hearing from the BC alumni who reach out to invite us to play.
This year’s championship squad seems to have a great team chemistry. Is this the secret to success?
Since I have been here, even back in the ’90s when we weren’t quite as successful, there has always been a great chemistry within our team. Then we started getting more skilled players into our program. We had some terrific players when I first came, players like Dave Hymovitz [’96], Don Chase [’96] and Tommy Ashe [’96]. But we didn’t have a whole roster full of them.
I think to go after national titles, you’ve got to be very, very deep with your core group, but then you need a lot of “soldiers,” too. Team chemistry has always been a big part of what we are. Everybody knows the “Xs and Os.” We don’t “out-X and O” people – you just can’t do it. You can’t “out-technology” the other coaching staffs.
What we do have is a terrific mindset that once you enter our program, you are an “Eagle,” and that’s way above any individual pursuits here, like All-America honors or Hobey Baker honors. Then there is that feeling that we share this with each other – we care for each other, kind of a cultural thing, a BC thing. That is what separates us from a lot of other teams. Other teams have gotten good players, and have mastered the Xs and Os, but our emotional involvement in winning games and chasing trophies is what drives our whole engine.
I think that is a mainstay, and it’s never been more evident than this year when we went 6-9-1 through one stretch [in January] and coming off back-to-back losses to Maine. We just kept working and our game elevated. All of a sudden, our defensive corps and [goaltender] Parker Milner especially, went through 19 games and we won every single one and only gave up 21 goals. In a nutshell, that’s amazing. It’s mind-boggling. We are pretty capable of scoring goals, so if you are limiting teams to that type of offense against us, I don’t know if you will win every one of those 19 games, but you will win a lot of them.
We talked about not wanting to be mediocre. We don’t want to be “average.” That’s not our makeup. That’s not our personality. We are on a track now of having that associated with our program – we win one then lose one. We are an average team. Our goals were not established to be average. I think it kind of jostled us a little bit. Other teams can do that to you. We play in a pretty good league – it’s not Watertown High out there. But even before Maine, we had been up and down. We have always had leaders like Ben Smith [’10], Joe Whitney [’11], Ryan Shannon [’05] and Brian Gionta [’00] and those are the leaders we have recruited, developed, whatever.
Tommy Cross ’12 is certainly in that class of leadership. The team always had resolve, but Tommy kind of pushed it to another level, just like those other guys.
You had some pretty well-known and successful sports people in to speak to you team this past year. Did that have good results?
Besides Doc Rivers, we had [former Red Sox manager] Terry Francona, [Patriots’ head coach] Bill Belichick. But I think Brian Leetch [New York Rangers, Hockey Hall of Fame], though, as a former Eagle player himself, really hit home. He came and you could just feel his attachment to the program. He talked about preparing for big games, told the kids “You are going to be nervous, and maybe have an unsettled stomach, but if are prepared then you are going to be confident. It’s when you are not confident going into big games, that you run into trouble, you become scared. The reason that you are not confident is that you have not prepared very well.” He reinforced what our coaches are always talking about, that practice is where you get better and develop that confidence. Now you go into a big game – and you still might be nervous, like when you are trying to win a national championship — but you are prepared and you are confident.
You are a cancer survivor. Has this changed your outlook in any way?
I’m in the recovery process – it has been six years this August [since undergoing surgery for prostate cancer]. My primary care doctor and my surgeon have both told me that I am clean and everything was a success. The biggest thing is that we caught it early and removed the prostate gland. The cancer was contained in that part of my body.
A lot of your contemporaries are planning their retirements. Any thoughts of how much longer you will stay active as a coach?
There has never been a thought process for me where I think, “If I win this game, I’ll retire,” or “If I win a national title, I’ll retire.” I have a tremendous amount of passion for not just hockey, but Boston College hockey. Working at this institution, it’s very unique in all of the collegiate environments. There is something so special here. Unless you are part of it, it’s hard to explain to people, but when you are on our campus, when you work here every day, there is a spirit no one else has. As long as Fr. Leahy [University President William P. Leahy, SJ] and the administration feel that we are doing a good job, I’m going to stay. I love it here.