Behind the Bench with Jerry York

By Stephen J. Holodinsky
Boston College is a school that is full of hockey history and tradition, one of those traditions has been a winning hockey program. So it should come as no surprise to find out the man responsible for upholding said legacy is one who once played for the Eagles himself, Jerry York Since returning to his alma mater, York has lead the team to back to back Frozen Fours and with his recruiting haul this year, widely conceded to be the best in college, there is no doubt even more pressure, justified or not, on him to come home with the NCAA Championship. Recently Hockey’s Future had the opportunity to talk with Coach York about last season, this season, and all things Boston Hockey.

Hockey’s Future: While it’s obvious that it would have been nice to win the NCAA Frozen Four, how do you rate the season just passed? What were some of the things you had set out to accomplish with your team at the beginning of the year and did you get those things accomplished?

Jerry York: I think it was an excellent year from our perspective because our goal was to be among the elite of college hockey. I think traditions are built upon post-season play. We understand how difficult it is to win a national championship, but we also understand how hard it is to just get to the Frozen Four.

HF: Your team is a perennial threat in Hockey East. How would you compare this past season with the two before it?

JY: I think they’re very similar due to the fact that our league has become a very strong league from top to bottom. We have a great deal of respect for our opponents. It was a year of ups and downs, like it should be, with excellent games and some games where the other teams were better than us on those particular nights.

HF: Was there any one thing in particular that made itself known during this year’s Frozen Four as something that needs to be worked on for next year?

JY: Just a reaffirmation of the fact, that to reach that level, there needs to be a tremendous work ethic and excellent team chemistry. That comes back to me over and over again.

HF: Based on this year’s recruits and this year’s losses, how do you size up your team’s strengths and weaknesses for next season?

JY: We certainly lose some premier college players in defenseman Mike Mottau, and particularly forwards Blake Bellefeuille and Jeff Farkas. I think the incoming freshman class, although they won’t have the significance on the team that the graduating seniors had, they will become very, very fine players as they get older and more mature.

HF: Define ‘Jerry York Boston College hockey’ from a strategy point of view.

JY: I think we want to be a pressing, on-the-puck style of team. We want to force play in all three zones. We want to be well schooled in fundamentals and have a great desire to win hockey games.

HF: Who is/are the player(s) you have coached at BC that define that type of hockey the best?

JY: I would think as a forward Brian Gionta, a player that is in-your-face, very quick, and always pressing. I would think a defenseman like Mike Mottau, a player who can beat you and lead our team in both offensive and defensive situations.

HF: You coach in a fairly hockey mad city. There is your school, Boston College, your crosstown rivals Boston University, and the NHL’s Boston Bruins. What’s it like coaching in an atmosphere like this?

JY: I think it’s excellent because the people are very knowledgeable about hockey and they enjoy watching teams that have plenty of skill and also work very hard. The people have a lot of those teams that they can cheer for in our area.

HF: It seems that whenever a great offensive defenseman comes out of Hockey East or, for that matter, New England in general he gets labeled ‘The Next Brian Leetch’. First it was Mattieu Schneider, then Bryan Berard, and now it’s Mike Mottau. As a coach, how do you handle that?

JY: Well, I think each player has aspirations to reach the top of his profession and generally emulates, whether it’s a Ray Bourque or a Brian Leetch. I think that’s good for them. I think they can watch the top players and pick up some different trademarks of that particular player.

HF: Time for the HF squint test. When you watch the following players and squint, is there anyone they remind you of on an NHL level?

Mike Mottau: I would think two players jump out at me, Don Sweeney from the Boston Bruins and Brian Rafalski from the New Jersey Devils. Both are similar size to Michael and handle the puck extremely well, whether it’s on the power play or clearing a zone. They are all extremely competitive.

Brian Gionta: I think Theo Fleury jumps at me as a player that epitomizes all of what Brian strives for. They both have quickness, are feisty, and very, very aggressive.

Brooks Orpik: I would say Kyle McLaren of the Boston Bruins, very strong physically and has really improved his puck-handling skills. They are both very similar physically.

Jeff Farkas: I would say Petr Sykora from the New Jersey Devils, very quick and very skilled with the puck.

Bobby Allen: Sean Hill of the Carolina Hurricanes is a player that has a combination of strength and ability to move the puck.

HF: Who haven’t we heard about at BC that we will hear about in two years time?

JY: I think our two sophomore forwards, Jeff Giuliano and Ales Dolinar will become mainstays in Hockey East. I think they will become All-Conference-type players.

HF: As a coach, what do you try to give the players that come into your program that they can take with them when they leave?

JY: A sense of values, in particular our hockey values as they pertain to teamwork, relationships with teammates, knowledge of the game, and just how hard it is to get to the next level – how much effort is required.

HF: Europe’s hockey program is noted for developing speed and skill, the CHL is seen as one that imbues toughness and desire. Where does the NCAA fit in on that scale, or do they offer something completely different?

JY: I think we offer a combination of size and strength, because we really work on all of our strength development programs, and speed and skill. Our team is very quick and very fast. We have that combination of speed and skill, and size and strength.

HF: You spent a fair amount of time coaching at Bowling Green during your career. How would you compare the two programs?

JY: We’ve tried to stay consistent in terms of the coaching staff. As far as our goals we’ve had, the leagues are similar. Michigan Sate and Michigan had tremendously competitive teams, while I was at Bowling Green. Here, B.U., New Hampshire, Maine are very similar to those teams.

HF: Much ado has been made about the lack of success of the US U-18s at this years tournament in Switzerland, so much so that the coaching staff has been fired. What’s your take on the NTDP and their contribution to US hockey? Has there been a noticeable difference in the quality of player now entering NCAA hockey and how so?

JY: We continue to produce excellent players through public high schools, prep schools, through U.S. Junior leagues, and through the NTDP program. I think Jeff Jackson did a very commendable job producing players. I think we have to understand just how difficult it is to play the Finns, the Swedes, the Russians, the Czechs. Jeff is probably the first to admit that those programs, in particular, have all of their best players in one program. In ours, players are still scattered throughout different leagues.

HF: There is no doubt that there is an intense rivalry between BC and BU. As someone who was gone for quite a while, has anything changed in the interim?

JY: All the top programs in college hockey have chief rivals, whether it be Michigan-Michigan State or Minnesota-Wisconsin, and we fall into that same category. I think top programs need a great rivalry with one particular school, I think it helps both of us. I remember the feeling in the ’60s when I played, it was very intense and very heated, but there is a great deal of respect between the two universities. And I think our particular schools have a history of hockey excellence and we feed off of each other.

HF: Is there also a rivalry between Jack Parker at BU and yourself. Both of you are close to the top of career coaching victories in the NCAA. Do you view a game against him any differently than you would one against someone else?

JY: I think Jack and I have been able to maintain a good, healthy relationship despite all of the recruiting and the wins and losses that we have had over thirty-some-odd years of coaching. I think we both respect each other and we both would like to beat each other.

HF: You’ve traveled a fairly long road in your coaching career. Can you pinpoint any one thing that you’ve picked up on the way that you never would have considered essential when you started out?

JY: When you hire an assistant coach, I think that is an incredibly important thing to the success of your program. We really look for knowledgeable young men, people who have a great deal of loyalty to the program. I think that’s probably the one factor. You can talk about recruiting players and coaching players, but hiring a staff is essential to a good program.

HF: Situational Hockey: You’re playing Boston University, down a goal with a minute left to play, goalie on the bench and the face-off in their zone. Who do you put out there and what do you tell them?

JY: Well certainly, you have to look at a center iceman that can control the draw, that is essential to that facet of the game because there’s not that much time left. Then you have to have some smart players and gritty players, no matter what line they are. We try to get our six players that exhibit a lot of grit and skill that can create a scoring opportunity and try to tie a hockey game. You’re not defending, you’re trying to score a goal and face-offs and talented players seem to make that work.

HF: Coaching is obviously something you must enjoy quite a bit. How long would you like to continue drawing up the plays?

JY: You know, I haven’t really thought about how deep into life I’m going to coach. We’re just concerned about trying to prepare our squad now for next year. I said I’ll stick as long as I enjoy it and if we win, I’ll stay at BC for a long time.

HF: If and when you retire, how would you like to be remembered?

JY: I think probably from a player’s perspective, as someone they enjoyed playing for and someone that created a real hockey atmosphere around the locker room, and someone that was able to push each player to the best of his ability.