Remembering Len Ceglarski

I covered college hockey for the Hockey News from 1969 to 1987, and was color radio commentator for Boston College hockey from 1973 to 1980. I’d like to share some of my memories of Len Ceglarski from those years.

Leonard S. Ceglarski passed away at the age of 91 on Saturday, December 16, 2017. Memories and tributes from the world of sport have been flowing in.  As well they should.

Len Ceglarski, coach

When Lenny retired from coaching college hockey in 1992, he was the all-time winningest coach in the game, with 673 wins over 34 seasons.  The first 14 seasons and 254 wins were at Clarkson College of Technology (now Clarkson University ) in Potsdam, New York.  The last 20 seasons and 419 wins were at his alma mater, Boston College.

Len had succeeded the man who was his college coach, John “Snooks” Kelley, on that lofty winningest-ever perch.  Now that spot belongs to Jerry York, a man to whom Lenny gave his first job in hockey.  Not a bad tradition.

Jerry was Lenny’s first assistant coach at Clarkson, a small school in a one-horse town about 50 miles from the Canadian border.  During Lenny’s time, they played in a drafty old barn on an ice surface that had a neutral zone that was much shorter than regulation size.  As soon as players broke out of their own end, they’d be at the opponent’s blue line. It was a building more suited to peewee hockey than to college varsity play.

But Len Ceglarski made Clarkson’s teams into a perennial power in Eastern college hockey. Rarely did they miss the ECAC playoffs at the Boston Garden.  Three times they finished runners-up in the NCAA finals. Until York arrived for the last few years of his tenure, Lenny ran the show all by himself – the recruiting, the on-ice coaching, the scouting. He even had his children draw up designs and color schemes for the Clarkson team jerseys.

Len Ceglarski, player

When Snooks Kelley announced his impending retirement from BC after the 1971-72 season, the job was Len Ceglarski’s if he wanted it. He was an alumnus who had an impressive run at a place with fewer resources than BC. There would be no debate.  That’s what we all believed and hoped anyway.

But Lenny didn’t approach BC athletic director Bill Flynn right away, and many very fine candidates applied. Two of the more impressive interviewees were Arlington High legend Eddie Burns, a BC man, and Tim Taylor of Harvard. Had Ceglarski not accepted the position, Taylor may well have been picked.

Finally, Flynn called Len to ask if he was interested.  He was, and that was that. He and wife Ursula and their six sons moved back to Massachusetts form the North Country.

The first time I met Ceglarski was in 1969 at McHugh Forum. It was after a Tuesday night ECAC quarterfinal playoff. Clarkson knocked off host BC, 4-2, and was headed yet again to the Garden. A kid named John Halme scored two or three goals.

Lenny came up to the press row to talk to a couple of reporters. I don’t remember what was said, but I do recall thinking that he seemed like a genuinely nice man.  He also must be a good coach too; his team had lost 7-2 to BC during the regular season.  BC’s team was very talented. Tim Sheehy and his classmates were in their prime, as juniors, and Paul Hurley was back on defense for his final year after playing in the 1968 Olympics.

The following year, 1969-70, I began covering the game for the Hockey News. I went to my first game up in Potsdam late in February.  BC had already begun a disastrous second-half slide – they lost 8 of their last 11 games – but they put up a good battle before losing 7-5. At one point, with BC on the power play, the puck skipped up into the stands. The clock operator let seven seconds run off before stopping it. The officials either ignored it or didn’t see it.

That year was the last one for Ned Harkness at Cornell.  Since the mid-60s, Cornell, with a roster full of Toronto-bred junior players, had been the Red Menace.  They were feared and, for the most part, hated.  In 1969-70, Harkness’s team went undefeated, 29-0, and won the national championship.  Clarkson lost to them 3-2 in the ECAC final at the Garden. In that game, Cornell scored in the last minute. They won again over Clarkson, 6-4, in the NCAA final at Lake Placid.

Those two losses were most unfortunate. You see, Lenny was just about the only coach in the East who could beat Cornell regularly. It was almost impossible for anyone to win in Ithaca; Clarkson beat Cornell 7-0 down there at one point, then by 2-1 two years later. So how did old Ned Harkness address his situation? By refusing to schedule Clarkson.

Harkness was the polar opposite of Ceglarski. Yes, he always had good teams and he drove them to near-perfection. But he was a bandit, a schlemiel, and a scoundrel.  If an opposing team had a breakaway against his goaltender, all of a sudden the arena lights would go out.  The opponents’ dressing room at Lynah Rink would be heated up to about a hundred degrees between periods. Sand would be sprinkled on the floor around the visiting team’s bench in order to dull their skates.

For two or three years before they had to meet in those 1970 playoffs, Cornell just would not play Clarkson.  Cornell played a creampuff schedule – two games against all the Ivy League teams, which guaranteed them ten wins a year.  They played BU and BC and once each. Lenny had no use for Ned, and the feeling was mutual.  Good guys don’t always win, and the bad guy beat the good guy twice in 1970.

Since that year, I have never rooted for a Cornell team. I still don’t.  Even though “some of my best friends are Cornellians,” most of their fans in those days were arrogant, obnoxious, and entitled. You’d think they were the ones who were playing the game.  Cornell has renewed its rivalry with BU – and it is a good one, I’ll grant – and I pull for those Terriers every time. Old dislikes die hard.

In 1971, Clarkson was back in the ECAC final. Again they lost, this time to Harvard, by a score of 7-4. Harvard was playing inspired hockey, giving its coach Cooney Weiland a grand swan song.  After the ECAC championship game in Boston, the NCAA selection committee broke precedent and selected Boston University as the East’s second team for the NCAA finals.  Never before had they taken any but the playoff runner-up.

Jack Kelley’s Terriers were a great team, no doubt.  They had been upset by Harvard in the ECAC semis and had a record of 26-2-1. Clarkson, which had knocked off Cornell – who else – in the other semifinal game, had a record of 28-4-1. A strong case could be made for taking BU, but it still shouldn’t have happened.  Yes, I know BU won the national championship that year, but Len Ceglarski and Clarkson deserved to go to the finals in Syracuse.

I was at the last game Lenny coached against Snooks Kelley in 1972. It was up in Potsdam in late February. Clarkson was a solid team and was once again playoff-bound.  BC, a rag-tag bunch, was struggling desperately to get Snooks his 500th win before retirement.  That was their only objective for the season.

Miracle of miracles, the Eagles pulled it out 6-4. The score was tied late in the third period when forechecker Bobby Reardon picked the pocket of Clarkson defenseman Bobby Clarke. Reardon jammed the puck past Carl Piehl for the game winner.  Piehl was the second-string goalie. Ceglarski had chosen not to play his top guy in the net, his late nephew Kevin Woods.

A year or so later, I was reminiscing about that game with Lenny, and about how critical it was, as win number 498, for Snooks in his quest for 500. He half-smiled and said, “I did my best.”

I also was at Len’s last game as Clarkson coach. It was the 1972 ECAC quarterfinals. Clarkson played at Harvard and was the better team in a close contest. But they lost. Woods was in the goal this time. He had a bad-luck play at exactly the wrong time, when a long, fluttering shot by Bill Corkery glanced into the net off his glove hand.

In the post-game locker room, neither I nor any of the other reporters addressed the elephant that was standing there by asking, “So, is this your last game at Clarkson? Are we going to see you at BC next season?” And of course, he never said a thing either.

Lenny’s honeymoon year at BC, 1972-73, was a lot of fun. Tom Mellor came back from the Olympics. Ed Kenty, Reardon, and Harvey Bennett were still around. Freshmen played for the first time on the varsity.  Richie Smith, Mark Albrecht, and Mike Powers were the impact rookies. The Eagles beat Cornell for the first time since before World War II and defeated BU as well. They made it all the way to the NCAA’s at Boston Garden.

With Lenny in charge, there was a new spirit of optimism after years of feeling uncompetitive against the big three rivals – BU, Cornell, and Harvard. But consistent success was a few years away. The rest of the 1970s were rocky, up-and-down until the recruiting stabilized.

Two of the most fun-filled years I can recall were 1976 and 1978. In ‘76, BC returned to the ECAC playoffs after a two-year absence.  They knocked off Cornell 6-2 in Ithaca – I never tired of beating Cornell and its oleaginous coach Dick Bertrand, a worthy successor to Harkness.  Nor did Len Ceglarski.  Beating Cornell delighted him more than winning against any other team.

BC also won the Beanpot in 1976, breaking a twelve-year drought, thanks largely to freshmen Joe Mullen and Paul Skidmore. Lenny had his car stolen right before the Beanpot final, a 6-3 win over BU. I think that the BC booster club would have bought him a new car every year if he could just keep winning the Beanpot.

In the 1976 playoffs, BC was seeded eighth and lost by a goal to top-seeded BU. The game was horribly officiated. John “Monk” McCarthy gave BU a preposterous third-period power play when BC’s Paul Barrett, kneeling next to the boards after a whistle, picked up the puck with his hand and flipped it over his shoulder.  That was one of several lousy calls McCarthy made against both teams. Len was never one to blast referees, and he kept a tight lip that night. All he’d say for the record – almost in tears – was “I’m so proud of them.”

Regarding referees, there was only one time in all the years I knew him that Lenny’s mouth got him in trouble.  In a Saturday afternoon game up at Cornell in 1980, Lenny suggested to Jack McGlynn that his refereeing objectivity had been compromised by his being a drinking buddy of Bertrand.  That got him a two-minute bench minor.

I had driven up to that game, leaving at 6:00 a.m. from the BC campus with the Dailey sisters, Patty and Nancy. They worked in the athletic department and were as devoted to Lenny and his teams as any fan ever was. We saw BC dominate most of the way and prevail, 6-5, after Cornell had a late flurry to make it close.

Usually, a dangerous breakdown like that would have ticked Lenny off. But not this time. After the game he was grinning like a cat full of cream. “We looked pretty good out there today, eh?” After all, it was another win over Cornell in Ithaca.

In 1978 we had the Great Blizzard. Three of them, actually. The middle one was the worst. BC had a tough time getting its game together. They lost big to BU at the Beanpot and at Cornell. The final game of the year was a makeup against UNH on a Sunday afternoon. The winner would be fifth and the loser would be eighth.  Skidmore had a good game in goal and BC pulled it out.

Dave Pearlman and I did the radio broadcast of the quarterfinal playoff game at RPI.  BC should have been playing at home. RPI, mere percentage points ahead in the standings, was there because they had avoided playing BU. Their snowed-out game against the Terriers, an almost certain loss, just couldn’t be made up, sorry.  Too much time out of class, our trustees are concerned, was the spin from coach Jimmy Salfi. So BC bused up to Troy, New York.

Lenny was interviewed by an RPI writer before the game. The questions, about RPI getting a home seed by avoiding BU, were almost taunting and intended to provoke. Lenny wouldn’t take the bait and asked the writer, “Well, what do you think? Do you think it was fair?”

BC ended up winning that night. When Paul Hammer scored the winner in overtime, Dave and I both jumped up in our seats. We pulled the plug out of the radio board, and for several minutes the audience back home didn’t know who won.

BC went on to win the ECAC Tournament and make it to the NCAA final game against BU. Neither team played particularly well; BU won 5-3. It was another NCAA runner-up slot for Len, his fourth and final.

BC would be a frequent qualifier for the big show but they were never able to win it. One year, it was superhuman goaltending by Providence’s Chris Terreri. Another time, BC lost its best player, Tim Sweeney, to an injury during the tourney. Bad bounces and bad luck were frequent visitors.  Boston College did not win the national title until 2001, with York as coach.

Ceglarski was a player on BC’s first NCAA winner in his sophomore season of 1948-49. But that he never won a national championship as a coach is a crying shame.  A coach who has such a long and successful career should get the chance to ascend to the very top of the mountain just once. It seems like the very nice guys, the gracious gentlemen like Len Ceglarski, sometimes just can’t get there.

Others in that category were Charlie Holt of UNH and Lefty Smith of Notre Dame. Each of them, like Lenny, deserved to win a national crown at least once in his lengthy and distinguished career. Perhaps they all lacked that last measure of cutthroat ruthlessness that you could see in coaches like Harkness, Herb Brooks, Bob Johnson, and Shawn Walsh, among others.

Of one thing, though, I’m certain. I’d have wanted my son to be coached by Len Ceglarski.

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3 Responses to “Remembering Len Ceglarski”

  1. Patrick J. Daly (@pjdaly7) Says:

    Not a hockey guy, but love to read the behind the scenes stories told by someone who knows his stuff and who there to witness and report on some great tales. All I know is that if I had grown up in the Boston area, I would have loved hockey & would have been an early BC Eagles fan. Not many hockey guys from NJ in my era. It was always hoops, baseball & football, and my love of basketball & baseball always created little room for hockey. Nevertheless, it’s always great to read about some real Boston hockey legends such as Len and Jerry York (not to mention Snooks). All good guys. Glad to see they all bled Maroon and Gold.

  2. Richard Michaud Says:

    Ceglarski was the most important person in my life.
    I’m a BC graduate 0f 1957 and played hockey.
    Why Len is so important to me is that he gave me a chance to be a coach at Walpole when he moved on to Clarkson .I was planning to be a science teacher in Amesbury.
    The team I had to take over were N.E. Champions and for a 22 year old guy an opportunity and a big challenge.
    For three years I was the coach of Walpole and it was a great learning experience and always thankful for Len giving me the opportunity.
    I left Walpole and was an assistant coach to Fullerton at Brown for two years and decided to try the business world which I am still involved in.
    Dick Michaud

    PS – Still indirectly involved with hockey people internationally..

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