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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On Hockey

Parked in trust

Three full collegiate generations with no Frozen Four appearances? Jack Parker has lived to reflect on that type of tale, let alone revel in the gush of refreshment that comes with better-late-than-never redemption.

In fact, Boston University’s Professor of Puck has overseen two twelve-packs of bitter endings in his timeless career, making in all two-thirds of his 36-year reign.

And as of yesterday, Parker has splashed a personal drought that only those of his kind could have possibly dug up in the first place: he accepted the Spencer Penrose Award as the American Hockey Coaches’ Association’s pick for NCAA Coach of the Year for the first time since 1978. A mind-boggling 31-year separation between Parker and Penrose –one that began when he was merely five years on the job- has finally ended.

Sheesh, and Minnesota Gopher fans thought 23 years (1979 to 2002) between national titles was indigestible. This may be the ultimate team sport, but an individual struggle like Parker’s –complete with protracted blotches of frustration and indubitable heat from ungrateful Terrier fans- just epitomizes his peerless legend.

Sequentially speaking, the alternations between power and patience put the bulk of the epic fiction found in the classrooms to shame. Jubilant fans now four days removed from Saturday’s barely describable overtime overthrow of Miami University will be enticed by the suggestion that at least the next seven years will deliver at worst satisfactory endings.

After all, that has been Parker’s basic pattern thus far: eight years of at least reaching tasting distance of a title, 12 years of anything less than that, repeat cycle.

The freshly crowned champions went the distance as part of the program’s first hustle to the final frontier since a whole different conglomeration of Terriers was rallying around the inspirationally buoyant Travis Roy in 1997.

That year, a 6-4 falter at the hands of North Dakota effectively halted an eight-year sugar rush that saw BU put in seven appearances in the then-Final Four of hockey, four title games and one 1995 banner included.

Before then? Well, after the 1978 installment –featuring Jim Craig, Jack O’Callahan, and Dave Silk- repressed neighboring rival Boston College to claim the crown at the Providence Civic Center, Professor Parker’s Pupils went into a rut of futility. An eight-year string complete with Parker’s advent to the bench in 1973 and seven Final Four passports was followed promptly by 12 years with no journeys of the sort.

Only by the 1989-90 campaign did BU re-emerge for a business engagement over the final weekend of the season, though they were promptly zapped by Colgate, 3-2. (In hindsight, it was a borderline ludicrous pity, seeing as the NCAA perplexingly decided to scrub out its consolation game before the start of that season. None other than the cross-Commonwealth Eagles were the other semifinal also-rans that year.)

It would take five more years and three more tries for the Terriers to progress to the title game, but when they did, they decisively wrested away the 1995 championship from Maine, 6-2, and at the same Providence Civic Center, no less.

Think Parker was internally scheming to hastily shuffle last weekend’s hospitality from the nation’s capital to his southern neighbor’s state capital?

Guess that didn’t matter in the long run. Incidentally, the centerpiece of the 2009 Frozen Four emblem –namely the US Capitol building- is fraternal enough to the Rhode Island State House, so for all you omen analysts, that sure worked nicer than Miami skipper Enrico Blasi borrowing ring-bearing Denver foreman George Gwozdecky’s lucky tie.

But less to the point of luck and more to the point of pucks, Parker’s constant, commanding presence has made a steadfast magnet out of the BU ice house. Even when left unfulfilled for a time, the craving to pitch in on a national title run –to say nothing of digging in to the Beanpot- for such a revered figure never fizzles. Why would it? The coach’s rep and desire never fizzle.

Co-captain Matt Gilroy and sophomore scoring beacon Colin Wilson alike cited the exact same pangs when they each opted to return to the program this season. And under altered circumstances, the likes of Kevin Shattenkirk and Colby Cohen –two inseparable D-men both under the eyes of the Colorado Avalanche- may have bolted early as well.

But the Terriers were fresh off an altogether unflattering deferment from the 2008 NCAA bracket, though Parker sensibly cited a sluggish start and a poor interleague transcript as the cause. And the coach was contagiously determined to redeem that embarrassment, which for him peaked Twelve Years Away From Paradise: The Sequel.

Now you see the result: a final transcript of 35-6-4, six championships in as many tournaments, a record 30 NCAA tournament wins, and a long-awaited reunion with Spencer Penrose’s prize.

Not to mention, the most stimulating turnaround in championship tilt history, and –as he is continuing to confirm to the satisfaction of umpteen inquisitors- the best BU team he has coached up to this point.

There was a time on the cusp of Y2K when The Hockey News playfully suggested a headline that Detroit Red Wings fans would love to see: “(Scotty) Bowman says he’ll coach for one more millennium.”

Fans around another red-and-white ice base can say the same about Parker.

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Facts cool as ice
College puck can take what it gets

The irony stemming from The Hockey News columnist Ken Campbell’s recent online entry gave off something of a locker room aroma –as it is received by a seasoned pair of hockey nostrils, that is. The presence of familiarity is welcoming, but the basic stench and its sources are still well understood.

Last Monday, Campbell took the time to observantly detail the state of American college hockey –presumably reaching out to the lesser-aware sect of his reader base from north of the border.

It’s indubitably appreciable to have that kind of a celestial byline casting a rare spotlight on the NCAA, even if his points are primarily obvious, a tad toe-curling, and ultimately carry nothing against the laws of sporting physics.

Concluded Campbell: “It looks as though hockey will remain something of a niche sport on the U.S. college scene. Special events such as huge outdoor games or boffo numbers at next year’s Frozen Four notwithstanding, college hockey is a regional sport played too well by too many small schools. That’s why it remains one of the collegiate sporting world’s unearthed gems.”

Campbell’s incentive to raise the topic was primarily sparked by last week’s NCAA men’s basketball title tilt being conducted at Detroit’s Ford Field, which in turn will vie to make frozen ripples in hosting the 2010 Frozen Four.

This author asks, why? Especially having attended and even covered handfuls of collegiate contests in Motown’s designated ice mansion, I have to wonder: what’s wrong with Joe Louis Arena? And how much good does a goofy stadium setup do for the game in the long run?

Place it anywhere and promote it in any fashion, and it’s still hockey. Which is why it seems to get the same consistent approving, disapproving, or indifferent receptions from the exact same parties.

None other than Adam Wodon, devoted chieftain of collegehockeynews.com, was the first to comment on Campbell’s talking points: “All true - including the unearthed gem part. The smaller schools aren't even as competitive as they used to be - but they are at least still competitive and can make a run.

“This is both a blessing and a curse for college hockey. But maybe the sport, and fans, should be content with that status and revel in what makes it unique.”

Being swamped out of sight by the abundance of professional sports, higher-ranking collegiate sports, not to mention the unrelated entertainment entities those programs compete with is the price of exercising unadulterated hockey humility. It’s inevitable penance for integrity.

You know what the other option would be, do you not? The puck promoters could always do as the football and basketball Romans do and prescribe an array of revenue enhancing drugs –e.g. tailgate parties some eight hours before face-off, “spirit squads,” and possibly the ZOOperstars (as seen at a Dunkin Dominicans contest this past February) to plug an activity void at intermission.

The fact is that, this author, for one, has yet to meet a genuine puckhead who would go for those kinds of interruptive additives. If you’re in it for the game, the story should pretty much end there. Any over-the-top sideshow is the bleacher-based equivalent of an opposing cheap shot artist.

And even the game’s real and relevant methods of lassoing extra publicity don’t seem to add much. On this coast, NESN could launch a Hockey East answer to “The Buzz” and/or “The Instigators” and it wouldn’t add much. Boss Bertagna has already branched out his television wires to ESPNU and the Canada-based Rogers Sportsnet and it’s not adding much.

Basing the Frozen Four in Anaheim (as in 1999), Washington (2009), or Tampa (2012) will only amount to one savory sip of unique hospitality in an unlikely hockey hotbed and maybe a negligible upgrade in youth hockey interest in those localities (as if the full-time NHL franchises of those cities can’t do the job better).

What, do you think multi-sport Friartownies are just yearning for the day when marquee basketball rivalries with Georgetown and South Florida are copy-and-pasted onto a sheet of ice?

On the whole, college hockey has simply been stuck with its current lot in life for eons. The same ponds of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, the Rockies, and Alaska are flooded, drained, and flooded again in accordance with the calendar and the demands of innocent fans, participants, and builders.

Granted, some institutions are flashing a harrowing shortage of sustainability –Exhibit A: Wayne State; Exhibit B: Bowling Green; Exhibit C: Alabama-Huntsville. Those markets can attest to the perils that perpetually plague minor league franchises.

If you’re lacking a rich base of history, you automatically assume that risk if you try to run a program in an overcrowded major league market like the deceased WSU Warriors did in Detroit; or in a middle-of-nowhere locality a la the endangered BGSU; or in a flat-out “Wait, they have hockey there?” setting like UAH, whose best bet might be to turn independent now that they’ve lost their College Hockey America auspices.

It can never feel any good to see a fellow fans’ heart break at the loss of his/her team. Then again, there’s no use in ceasing to enjoy what remains. So long as pure blood from administrators, participants, and student and local fanatics continues to sustain this game as it is, why fret?

You know what Bobby McFerrin always says, do you not?

Throat clearing
Thankfully, no improbable accidents like that of Richard Zednik have occurred since the NHL veteran escaped unspeakable consequences from a skate-to-throat encounter some fourteen months ago in a Florida-Buffalo contest. At least, nothing of that breed has occurred on a stage visible enough to catch the broader public eye. Come what may, Vermont’s presence in the Frozen Four this past week inevitably rehashed the related story of Chris Atkinson, the sophomore forward who suffered an all-too-similar scare while a member of the US National Development Program three winters ago. Both incidents –to say nothing of the Clint Malarchuk fright from the late 1980s- transpired the same way and continue to be recounted the same way. “(The accident) couldn't have happened at a better place, if it had to happen,” said Atkinson’s father, Mike, in the Albany Times-Union this week, referring to the noble presence of emergency personnel at the rink.

But, that being said, no more incidents like that really do need to happen. What’s so hard about legislatively ushering in neck guards the same way helmets and face masks have been integrated into this level of the game and the way visors are coming to warmer acceptance in the pros? Hockey should bear a healthy competition for points and hardware and a safe stalemate of fun; not a reckless, fruitless quest for dubious tokens of manhood.

Providential pairing
Rookie New York Islanders skipper Scott Gordon –a one-time Boston College backstop during the mid-1980s ECAC-Hockey East transition period and the P-Bruins’ foreman just before he started his Long Island gig- has been enlisted as Ron Wilson’s sidekick for the forthcoming Men’s World Championships. And all signs –namely U.S. GM Brian Burke’s words in Monday morning’s press conference to formally introduce Wilson- point to Gordon hanging about to help tutor the American pucksters next February in Vancouver. No surprise, no problem. Like the tandem of Friar alumni in Toronto, Gordon has centered his latest projects around fostering a yet-to-ripen stock of skaters, which Team USA figures to concoct for its next couple of endeavors.

Quick feeds: Northeastern women’s senior forward Missy Elumba –whose benevolent fingerprints lie on at least seven Boston-area charities and whose off-ice travel bag includes stickers reading “Calcutta, India,” “Oaxaca, Mexico,” and “Gulfport, Miss.” claimed the BNY Mellon Wealth Management Hockey Humanitarian Award. Aside from the foremost aspects of her work in disaster and disease relief, her achievement splashed a protracted 25-day drought of fresh news on the WHEA’s official website (is the offseason still this young?)…BC alumnus Cory Schneider –two years into his bid for a full-time Roberto Luongo apprenticeship in Vancouver- will in the meantime soak in the implications of AHL top goalie honors. The Manitoba Moose stopper had a regal 1.99 goals-against average and .929 save percentage at the time of his selection for the Baz Bastien Award…Mea culpa on this author’s part: a portion of last week’s column implied that Bemidji State had safely cemented its WCHA membership for next season. All signs indicate that commissioner Bruce MacLeod and Co. still has reservations about supervising an odd-numbered field. What’s the matter? Would that make it took hard to grant postseason action to every tenant –worthy or unworthy?

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com