New Book Traces BC Hockey History
Q&A: Reid Oslin
As the days grow shorter and the temperature drops, the focus of Boston College sports fans invariably turns to hockey. And with the Eagles’ season in full swing, a must-read for hockey aficionados – or anyone with an interest in BC and Boston history – is Tales from the Boston College Hockey Locker Room: A Collection of the Greatest Eagles Hockey Stories Ever Told by former News & Public Affairs Associate Director Reid Oslin ’68, MA ’71, who was also BC’s sports information director for 24 years, and Tom Burke, a sports journalist who also has been the arena announcer for BC hockey for 27 years. Oslin, who retired in 2012, recently talked about his latest book with Chronicle’s Sean Smith.
Q: Having published books about BC football [Tales from the Boston College Sideline and Boston College Football Vault: The History of the Eagles], doing one on BC hockey must’ve seemed a logical step.
Oslin: BC hockey is something like Duke basketball, in that they’re always in the conversation for the national championship, and have enjoyed phenomenal success over a long period of time: We’re talking about five national titles, including four in the past dozen years. And BC hockey has sent many of its players to both the Olympics and to professional hockey, which is certainly a good barometer for a college program.
But this was also an opportunity to learn more about the life and times at Boston College itself, and how the University – not to mention Boston – has changed over the years.
Q: College football and college basketball get far more attention from the media and general public, but it seems BC – even as it’s changed over the years – has always had a special connection to hockey. Why is that?
Oslin: Well, hockey has always been a Boston sport, and of course BC was for years “Boston’s college,” with a student population drawn from the city’s neighborhoods and some of the surrounding towns.
BC, in fact, was a pioneer in college hockey. The program goes back to the 1890s, when students played “ice polo,” using a ball instead of a puck. That changed when “the Montreal game” – hockey as we know it – became popular, and BC began playing it in 1897-98; BC formalized its varsity hockey program 20 years later and began intercollegiate competition.
BC was one of the first colleges to have its own campus rink: first on what is now the location of the St. Mary’s Hall rose garden, and then on Alumni Field – later the “Dustbowl” and now the site of Stokes Hall. But these weren’t indoor facilities; BC would flood the area with water, which froze, and tend the ice by hand – no Zamboni machine in those days.
Q: One of the amazing things about BC hockey is that it almost died out, and was almost single-handedly resurrected by one man. Tell us about that.
Oslin: The man’s name was Bill Hogan Jr., a 1933 grad. I had actually interviewed him in 2012 as part of a Chronicle feature on the University’s Sesquicentennial, and he told me how BC dropped the sport while he was a student but he’d convinced them to start it up again. So when the opportunity to do this book came, naturally I wanted to hear more from him about this little-known chapter in BC hockey history.
Hockey had been quite popular at BC in the 1920s, but the school suspended the program in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash and the subsequent Great Depression. Bill had gone to BC expecting to play hockey, so he was very disappointed about that, but he managed to convince the BC senior administration and Athletics Director John P. Curley to provide limited financial support, and even got the manager of the old Boston Arena, George Brown – who, ironically, is the grandfather of co-author Tom Burke - to donate practice time in the facility for the team. The players had to use old football jerseys for uniforms and provide their own skates, sticks and other equipment, but at least the program was back up and running again.
But one of the most important things Bill did was to convince a friend of his, who’d been the hockey team manager at BC and graduated in 1928, to become the volunteer coach: John “Snooks” Kelley.
Q: Kelley is a key figure in BC sports history, isn’t he?
Oslin: I devoted two chapters to Snooks; I could probably write a whole book just on him. He was the “dean” of American college hockey coaches, he headed up the program for 36 years, won BC’s first hockey championship in 1949, became the winningest college hockey coach by the time he retired. Yet he’d never played organized hockey, and he was a part-time coach who never made more than $3,000 a year at BC; his full-time job was teaching at Cambridge Latin. When he began coaching at BC, he’d pick up the players and drive them to the Boston Arena for a 6 a.m. practice; after practice, he’d go off to teach in Cambridge.
Snooks was just a great character. His idea of recruiting was to wait for the Boston Globe to release its All-Scholastic team of top high school players, then call them up and ask, “What are you doing next year?” He had all these pet phrases and clichés – “Snookerisms” as the kids on the teams called them: If the team won a big game, he’d say “One snowflake does not a blizzard make” to remind them about the rest of the schedule; if he really liked a player, he’d say “No finer man has walked on leather”; and if a kid on the team came from outside the Greater Boston area, he’d refer to their hometown as “Henderson Pump” or “East Overshoe.”
One of the many great stories about Snooks was how he went to plead with a professor – Frank Parker, SJ, who was then a Jesuit scholastic – not to put one of his players on academic probation, making the student ineligible to play. Fr. Parker said he’d give the kid another chance.
As Snooks was leaving, Fr. Parker’s secretary asked how the meeting had gone. “Piece of cake,” Snooks told her. “Now, can you tell me where to find the English Department?”
He was a gentleman and a great sportsman, and a true friend and mentor to his players. He died the day [April 10, 1986] that McHugh Forum – BC’s first indoor hockey rink – was about to be torn down.
Q: Who are some of the other major figures in BC hockey?
Oslin: There are so many, and that’s really what the book is about: the people and personalities who helped make BC hockey what it is. You have to talk about another legendary player and coach, Len Ceglarski, who surpassed Snooks – he’d played for him on the 1949 championship team – as winningest college hockey coach. It took Len three years before his family could afford to send him to BC, and every day he’d hitchhike from Walpole to campus, hardly ever missing a class; then he’d practice with the team, get home at around 10 p.m. and have to get up again at 5:30 next morning and do it all over again.
Len’s father was a Polish immigrant who didn’t know anything about hockey – he had never even seen a game – but he gave Len some good principles about team sports. He told him, “I’ll give you a dime for every goal, and a quarter for every assist.” That stuck with Len throughout his career: If you were on his team and you didn’t pass the puck, you’d sit on the bench.
Then, obviously, there’s Jerry York, who has the four national championships and now – following in the legacy of Snooks and Len – holds the title as winningest college hockey coach. Jerry’s dad was a doctor, and the on-call physician at the Campion Center, the Jesuit residence in Weston; as a boy, Jerry would go out there with him and often played hockey with the Jesuit seminarians.
Not everyone may remember this, but Jerry’s return to his alma mater to coach the Eagles was under somewhat of a cloud: Back then , BC had finished at or near the bottom of Hockey East the last few years, so clearly the program was in transition; then Mike Milbury, the former Boston Bruin, was announced as the new coach, but he changed his mind – he’d never signed a contract – and left without ever coaching a game.
In a way, then, you might say that Jerry was the “consolation prize.” But he was ready to make the move from Bowling Green, where he’d been for 15 years and won a national championship . He went to work on reestablishing BC’s credibility and rebuilding its recruitment. His big coup was landing Marty Reasoner, a standout player from upstate New York – once that happened, all the other good players wanted to come here. That was the beginning, and Jerry has been able to build on that success.
I also spent time with Giles Threadgold, now 90 years old, who was among the group of players who had served in World War II before coming to BC; they were older than most of the other students. Giles had won two Purple Hearts, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was wounded in his spine and eye, and told by his doctor that he should forget about playing hockey ever again. As he said to me, “I just laughed at him.” Sure enough, Giles made the team, and helped BC win the 1949 championship.
Q: You mentioned earlier that looking back at BC hockey history gave you some insights on the University and its development. Could you elaborate on that?
Oslin: First, I have to thank the staff in the University Archives at Burns Library for all their help in locating various documents and materials that we used in putting the book together. They made it possible for us to find all kinds of facts and details that made the project come together.
What I found striking was how the evolution of BC hockey reflected BC’s own transition into a major American university. As we know, BC was a commuter school when hockey was first played here, and stayed that way for many more years. So much of the team usually came from Boston, Arlington, Newton and other local towns, one player commented that he felt like an outsider because he was from Rhode Island – all of about 25 miles away.
That changed when the team began to recruit in other areas of the country. For example, it was a big deal to get a kid from Minnesota, like Jim Green in the 1960s from Hibbing – where one of his high school classmates was a guy named Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan – or future BC All-American Tim Sheehy from International Falls, one of the nation’s most highly-recruited players back in the ‘60s.
But, of course, Boston College as a whole was increasingly taking a national focus, reaching out to students from other parts of the country. And BC became even more cosmopolitan, as students from other countries began to attend – sure enough, the hockey team wound up with players from Canada, even a couple from Scandinavia. Now, BC has a goalie, sophomore Thatcher Demko, who’s from San Diego – I’m not even convinced they have ice in San Diego [laughter].
It was a fun, very enlightening process to put the book together with Tom. In researching the book, my respect for people like Snooks Kelley, Len Ceglarski and Jerry York, and so many others only deepened, and my appreciation and admiration for BC has grown all the more.
Tales from the Boston College Hockey Locker Room is available at BC Bookstore, Amazon.com and most Barnes & Noble Bookstores in Eastern Massachusetts.