Discussing College Hockey’s Best Rivalry with the Master: Former Boston University Coach Jack Kelley

Getting cold out there. Steamy morning breath. Rime on the windshield. A skim of glaze on the Charles. Bats, balls and gloves are put away. A final thanks to our Boys of Summer. Time for the Boys of Winter.

It’s hockey season at last, and there’s no better harbinger than the renewal of that ancient rivalry, Boston College and Boston University.

The Eagles took this year’s first encounter, 5-1, in the Terriers’ home arena on November 8. These two teams first played against each other in 1918. The all-time tally now reads BU 129, BC 117, with 17 ties. The 5-1 game was BC’s first outing since the announcement of Jerry York’s six-year contract extension. Looks like the team decided to throw Jerry a little party.

David Quinn, BU’s new head coach, was facing BC for the first time. He said that his lads would put the lessons of the loss to good use. Good call, David, to remember this game and build upon it.

Learning from Defeat
“I think I only remember the times that you beat me. That tells you what a rivalry it was,” said the coach.

Jack Kelley at the old Boston Arena, in the days before protective glass.

Jack Kelley at the old Boston Arena, in the days before protective glass.

The speaker of the above was not David Quinn or his predecessor Jack Parker. It was Jack Kelley, the man who coached the Terriers to the pinnacle of college hockey back in 1971 and 1921. Jack was the first coach I ever interviewed in person when I began writing for the Hockey News in 1969. I spoke with him recently to ask him for some memories of his games with Boston College.

“I had such great respect for Snooks Kelley and I loved coaching against him,” said Jack. “He and Cooney [Weiland] and Eddie Jeremiah and Herb Gallagher… they did so much for hockey way back then, getting it recognized and bringing it to the forefront…what they’ve done is probably forgotten today.”

For those who don’t remember back that far, Cooney Weiland played for the Bruins, coached them as well, then was the long-time coach at Harvard. Herb Gallagher was hockey coach and then athletic director at Northeastern. Eddie Jeremiah was a legendary head coach at Dartmouth. Agree with Jack’s observation about all three. But the same is certainly true of him. He’s not forgotten, but I don’t think his own contributions to college hockey are as well remembered or as highly esteemed as they should be.

NCAA Tournament chairman Herb Gallagher, left, presents 1972 national championship trophy to Kelley and captain John Danby.

NCAA Tournament chairman Herb Gallagher, left, presents 1972 national championship trophy to Kelley and captain John Danby.

Jack Kelley’s work at Boston University transformed the college hockey culture in Boston. He came down from Colby College and shook a sleepy Terrier program awake. He turned the BC-BU series upside down and made the Beanpot a virtual BU invitational. He also showed that Eastern colleges could take down the mighty Western schools in the national tournament. And the precise, methodical passing game of his champion teams remains an essential part of any successful college sextet today.

Aside – yes, Cornell won a couple of national titles during Kelley’s era too. But gimme a break – they were a Denver-style Western crew, a transplanted Canadian Major Junior A outfit in college uniforms. Dick Bertrand, their tri-captain in 1970, was 28 years old when he graduated. Cornell had excellent teams and was almost impossible to beat. But their success was not quite as admirable as that of the other Eastern champions, of which Boston University under Jack Kelley would be the first.

The Raw Numbers

Before Quinn arrived, Parker had directed the team for 40 years. York is in his 42nd year of coaching. Between them, they’ve earned ten national championships and have won 1,838 games. Their places on Boston’s sporting Olympus are secure.

Jack Kelley, in his ten years at BU, had “only” 206 wins to go along with 80 losses and eight ties. His win percentage was .716, and his teams won six Beanpots and two national titles. Add seven years of coaching at Colby, and his all-time college record is 295-95-13. These numbers don’t lie, but they don’t speak loudly enough either.

Reverberations

You hear echoes from Jack Kelley’s time whenever BU and BC play. Parker learned his hockey at Kelley’s knee, a both player and assistant coach. After the year-and-a-half blip with Leon Abbott in charge at BU, Jack the Younger took over in 1973-74. He had learned well, and he preserved and extended the Terriers’ winning ways. Quinn played for Parker and was his assistant for a spell.

York’s teams play like an updated version of Kelley’s Terriers. They fling the puck around and through the opposition, a perpetual attack at greyhound skating speed made possible by full face masks and ever-lighter protective equipment. The face mask was not a good thing for the game, but that’s a topic for another time. It’s here to stay, and the winning teams like York’s have adapted to it. Jerry’s players excel at the stick-to-stick passing that Kelley’s BU teams perfected.

Back in 1971, Notre Dame came to BU and lost by several goals. The goaltender was asked what he thought about trying to stop the BU power play. “Stop it?” he said. “I just had to stand there and watch it – it was so beautiful. “

Those Last Games of 42 Seasons Ago

Kelley and his 1972 team, on the ice for the final time at Boston Garden

Kelley and his 1972 team, on the ice for the final time at Boston Garden

The last game that Jack Kelley coached against Boston College was one of those losses he remembers. He’s not the only one who recalls it well. Both he and Snooks Kelley had announced their retirements. BU was on its way to a second straight NCAA title. BC was a struggling, second-tier crew that had just one objective: to get Snooks his 500th career win before he went home after his 36th season.

BU that year was a little like the Bruins of 1971. Both teams were so powerful that they didn’t have to try especially hard. The B’s had won the Stanley Cup in 1970, then breezed through the next season and absorbed a dope-slap loss from Montreal in the first playoff round.

BC somehow rose to the occasion that snowy February night and upset BU 7-5, snapping an eight-game loss streak. As both Kelleys exited the rivalry, the series stood at 50-50-4. Jack Kelley recalled,

“That was the wakeup call. It was probably my fault. I sure didn’t want to be his 500th victim. Snooks deserved to beat someone like Boston University for such a magic number, and as time’s gone on, it’s dulled the pain and I appreciate being a part of his history.

“When you lose, most of the time you think it’s on you… and I kept wondering what I had done that I didn’t have my team totally prepared for BC.”

BC had given Jack a captain’s chair before that game. He still has it up in his lakefront home in Maine. As always, he was most gracious with Snooks and his players in the post-game handshakes at center ice. But when the locker room door closed behind him, Jack launched a post-game tirade that has become a permanent part of Terrier hockey alumni lore.

Well known to BU insiders too is the story of Kelley’s return to his Belmont home, where he usually entered by the back door. Finding the door locked, and still steaming, he kicked it in.
“My wife didn’t speak to me for a week after that,” he chuckles.

If that game was a poetic denouement to Snooks Kelley’s career, if the Snooker deserved to topple Boston University one last time, then the final contests of Jack Kelley’s tenure at BU were just as fitting and just as deserved.

Celebrating the win: Whooping it up as the 1972 tournament awards are announced. Behind Kelley is Jack Parker, then his assistant coach.

Celebrating the win: Whooping it up as the 1972 tournament awards are announced. Behind Kelley is Jack Parker, then his assistant coach.

The 1972 Terriers took both the ECAC and the NCAA championships at their second home, the Boston Garden. Each time they defeated Cornell, the team that had been Kelley’s most troublesome foe. It was 4-1 in the ECAC final and a thumping 4-0 in the NCAA title game.

Those final victories didn’t come easily. Cornell had beaten BU in the last regular season game after the BC loss. But the music finally stopped for the Big Red and their supercilious fans. Kelley kept fiddling with his lineup. If memory serves, one of his key moves was to give a more prominent role to Paul Giandomenico. Up to that time, the little guy known as Sweeper to his teammates and Peewee to his Walpole, Mass. friends had been a spare part, but in the Garden he gave his team mates a big extra boost.

What Else Might Have Been

Kelley departed the scene then, off to run the Whalers of the World Hockey Association. He turned to Boston College for several of his pro players – Tim Sheehy, Kevin Ahearn, John Cunniff, Paul Hurley. He also ran ice arenas, went back to Colby to coach a year, and all the while kept up with his horse-breeding business. An entire career in college hockey was not for him.

It would have been nice to see what Jack Kelley could have done as coach of a U.S. Olympic team. He was every bit as tough, every inch the disciplinarian, as Herbie Brooks would turn out to be in 1980. I suspect that he would have made Brooksie seem like a soft touch.

Jack’s Terriers took on the 1972 Olympic Team at an exhibition game at the Garden in November of 1971 and tied them 4-4. Three BC players were on the Olympic roster, prompting one Terrier partisan to yell, “Come on BU – it’s only BC!” A tie with the team that would bring home a Silver Medal from Sapporo – not bad at all for a college outfit.

Another thing that I never knew about Jack Kelley until our recent chat – he too is one of those Greatest Generation guys to whom we boomers owe so much gratitude. He was a latecomer to the war effort, but he did his duty, leaving Belmont High early in 1945 and entering the service. The war ended shortly thereafter. Jack would have graduated from BU in 1949, but his delayed return with so many other veterans put him into the class of 1952.

BC was in the Kelley family’s sights even then. Jack points out that his brother Paul was the BU goaltender in the first Beanpot game ever played, a 4-1 Terrier win over Northeastern on December 26, 1952. But he proudly adds that later in the year, Paul shut out Boston College. It was the first time the Eagles had been blanked in eight seasons.

Boston College and Boston University meet for the 264th time on January 17 at BC. Then they’ll play in the Beanpot first round on February 3.

I won’t predict the winner of either of those games. But I can promise that in both contests you’ll see college hockey the way it should be played. You’ll feel the rivalry’s spirit, raucously opposing on the surface, but respectfully friendly at the core like the game of hockey itself. For all that, you can thank the people who built these two college hockey programs. And one of the greatest of those builders was Jack Kelley. He wasn’t around Boston for very long, but he was one of the very best.

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