Back in the late 1970s, Jerry York was the youngest coach in the nation. Now he’s the second oldest, behind Red Berenson, who turned 77 yesterday. York is in his 45th season behind the bench of a Division I team and he’s coached a mind-boggling 1,740 games. He’s won 1,025 of them, which is exactly 100 ahead of Ron Mason, who’s No. 2 on the all-time wins list. He’s guided five national championship teams and put countless players in the NHL, from Hall of Famer Rob Blake to current NHLers such as Johnny Gaudreau, Cory Schneider, Brian Boyle and Patrick Eaves.
In other words, he had perhaps earned the right to sit this one out. The 71-year-old dean of Division I hockey could have told associate coach Greg Brown to take the bench for one night. But faced with the prospect of not being able to fly to South Bend, Ind., to coach his Boston College Eagles against Notre Dame Saturday night because he’s recovering from surgery to repair a detached retina, York instead went old school for the 900-mile, 18-hour journey.
While the rest of the team chartered out of Boston Friday afternoon for a 90-minute flight, York had his director of hockey operations, John Hegarty, drive him to Albany Thursday afternoon. From there, York hopped an Amtrak train bound for South Bend that got in at about 8:30 Friday morning. And the most stunning thing about all of this is that York did this coach one game, not a weekend series. In fact, he figures Saturday night’s game will go until about 10 p.m., which means he’ll be able to take an Uber from the Compton Family Ice Arena to catch the midnight train that will let him retrace his steps, meaning he should get back to Boston sometime Sunday evening.
York missed six games early in the season while he was recovering from the surgery, but wasn’t about to sit any more out. So there he’ll be Saturday night, behind the Eagles bench, sporting an eye-patch and trying to help his team improve on its 8-0-1 record in Hockey East. It’s already the best start of any team in league history, but that’s not what is motivating him. It’s the passion for coaching that still drives him.
“All I need is a parrot on my right shoulder and I’ll be a buccaneer,” York said. “I think for me, this was a telltale sign that I still want to do this, that I have the passion to do it. This was a key indicator, if I didn’t want to do it I think that would be telling me something. I see Red Berenson at coaching conferences and we both like golf and other things, but I’d still rather be coaching than doing anything else. I love being behind the bench and I love tying up my skates at 2:30 every day.”
And York has a lot to be excited about this season. Despite losing seven players to the NHL from last year’s team, the Eagles have been a Hockey East juggernaut this season. Despite losing seven underclassmen to the NHL, the Eagles are the top team in their league and with an overall record of 13-5-1 has them the No. 4-ranked team in the nation. They’re second in the NCAA in goals scored with 71 and their goal differential of plus-30 is No. 1 in the nation.
This is despite losing Miles Wood and Steven Santini to the New Jersey Devils, Alex Tuch and Adam Gilmour to the Minnesota Wild, Zach Sanford to the Washington Capitals, Ian McCoshen to the Florida Panthers and goalie Thatcher Demko to the Vancouver Canucks. And Jeremy Bracco, who sits third in the Ontario League scoring race with 50 points already this season, left the Eagles early last season to jump to major junior hockey.
“We have 13 freshmen this year,” York said. “That’s a lot of new guys. We were prepared to lose maybe three guys (to the NHL), but we got surprised and we had to scramble. We had to almost rebuild the whole program.”
It has helped that freshman Joe Woll, a third-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has more than filled the void left by Demko. The 6-foot-4, 202-pound native of St. Louis has been the team’s backbone and a large reason why the Eagles have given up only nine first-period goals in 19 games this season. They’re also outscoring their opponents 28-12 in the second period. The Eagles are led offensively by a small, skilled kid by the name of Gaudreau from New Jersey, just as they were two years ago. Matthew Gaudreau, whose brother Johnny won the Hobey Baker Award with the Eagles three years ago and turned pro with the Calgary Flames, leads the team with 6-16-22 totals in 19 games.
“This isn’t the most talented team I’ve ever had,” York said, “but it’s the most enjoyable for me to coach in a long time.”
The game against Notre Dame will be the last before the holidays. That means York won’t have to get on a plane until a trip to Pittsburgh after Christmas. He sees his doctor Dec. 23 and hopes to be cleared to fly after that. If not, he’ll likely be on the train to Pittsburgh because he’s not about to let a long travel day keep him from behind the bench.
“It’s not in my fabric,” he said of the prospect of missing games. “I feel just like Punch Imlach.”