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Sometimes, Nice Guys Finish First

Brian Durocher’s no-drama style builds women’s hockey team

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow. Video by Nicolae Ciorogan
Watch this video on YouTube

In the video above, BU women’s ice hockey coach Brian Durocher talks about his team and his career, with men’s hockey coach (and Durocher’s former coach) Jack Parker weighing in about his playing days as a Terrier and Durocher’s players about his coaching and their respect for him. Photo by Melody Komyerov

If you argue hockey with Canadians, it helps to have your facts straight. It helps even more to have a diplomat’s finesse. Women’s hockey coach Brian Durocher needed both last year during a practice where several of his Canadian players were flubbing their signature power play. That’s when a team tries to muscle past an outnumbered opponent that’s lost a player to the penalty box. “I was trying to make the difficult passes, go backdoor—it just wasn’t working out,” recalls Tara Watchorn (SAR’12).

Players say that Durocher (SED’78) rarely raises his voice, so they pay heed when he does, as now. “Make the pass simple,” Watchorn says he told her. “Get the puck on your forehand, pass one way, pass the other, and just keep it simple.” This did not sit well. “I’m not the easiest person to coach all the time,” says Watchorn. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to take another way.” Grudgingly, she decided, fine, we’ll do it your way.

They did, and scored.

Rarely rattled, Durocher is able to coax the best from his players. Photo by Brooks Canaday

With body checks verboten, women’s hockey requires precision stickhandling and a leader with the knowledge to improve it. Durocher’s immersion in his sport (goaltending in high school and during his BU days) gives him the knowledge. As the father of three grown daughters, he’s also learned a few things about relating to women. But fixing the power play tapped another attribute that has served the 55-year-old coach throughout his career: an unflappability that coaxes the best from the top players he recruits. This year’s disappointing performance (14-12-1 as of January 30) masks the team’s sprint from start-up seven seasons ago to Hockey East champion in just its fifth season, and runner-up in the NCAA national championship last year.

Men’s head hockey coach Jack Parker (SMG’98, Hon.’97) hired his ex-goalie as an assistant two years after Durocher’s graduation, in large measure, he says, because his sincere, laid-back persona makes him a natural recruiter. It’s the part of his job that obsesses Durocher. “I wake up thinking about recruiting,” confides the Longmeadow, Mass., native, who typically rises at 5:30 a.m. “I’m always kind of picking away at the computer, seeing who I can send a little note to.” Those notes aren’t always blatant recruitment pitches; they can be birthday wishes, congrats on a recent good game, anything to bond with a potential Terrier. Once they’re on the team, he encourages friendships off the ice to cement team solidarity; the players’ annual bowling outing was Durocher’s idea.

“When you talk to him away from the rink or see him around campus,” says Watchorn, “the first thing he’ll talk to you about has nothing to do with hockey: how’re classes going, how’s everything, how are your parents?”

That Mr. Mellow touch does not run in the family. Durocher’s style is the polar opposite of his famous great-uncle’s, the late Leo Durocher, the multiply married, tantrum-tossing, game-ejected baseball manager who compiled an impressive win record (for the Brooklyn Dodgers, among others) with a philosophy summed up in his memoir’s title: Nice Guys Finish Last. And it’s light years from that of Parker, an emotional pistol forever poised to discharge at a referee for a perceived offense. “He was kind of the ayatollah—it was his way or the highway,” Durocher says of his former coach. “Sometimes it’s a situation that’s 5 to 1—he still thinks we should be winning 6 to 1. I can’t maintain my intensity as long as him.”

“Brian knew enough that he had to be himself,” Parker says. “I think the thing that makes him a great coach is sincerity. He would have been much more successful as the men’s coach than I would have been as the women’s coach, because I don’t think I have the personality. Patience is a virtue that he has in spades, and I don’t have a lot of.”

Dowsing pregame nerves, Durocher says, is always his priority, ensuring that “our kids aren’t gripping the stick so tight that they can’t stickhandle the puck.” Photo by Melody Komyerov

A natural athlete who exercises regularly (Parker says he shoots a mean game of golf), Durocher doesn’t keep his compact body at rest during games, mind you. During BU’s 6-2 drubbing of the University of Vermont in January, he occasionally challenged a ref—“Why the whistle?” “Whatcha got going here? She poked it right off the stick!”—rearing up on the bench, arms outstretched in exasperation, when he thought UVM dodged an obvious penalty call. But his voice kept just loud enough to be heard in the din of the arena, and he didn’t pitch a fit when things didn’t go his way. His thin sandy hair stayed in place, the occasional nibbling on the end of a finger his only betrayal of possible nerves.

At the pregame meeting in the locker room—a crimson sanctum with red floors, red helmets, and red-and-white uniforms hanging in cubbies—he’s all business, no smiling, as his gravelly voice forecasts the coming battle, his hand dancing over a small marker board diagramming plays. “UVM, the last time they played, they had 12 hockey players on the ice. They’ll have 14 this time, it looks like, OK? Probably all that influences is how they’ll forecheck a little bit, maybe how assertive they’ll be in certain situations. It doesn’t eliminate them from the game. If I remember, it was 2- or 3-nothing with Boston College, a pretty good hockey team that they took right down to the wire. We have nothing to do but stay on the pedal the entire game.”

Big-name recruits from the get-go

Durocher had a lot going for him when he launched the team, from the allure of Boston to University scholarships for players, and he chased big-name recruits from the get-go. One of his early catches was Allyse Wilcox (CGS’07, SHA’09), a heavily wooed goalie who chose BU despite having to bed down on a hardwood floor during a campus visit that was marred by a migraine. Recalling her meeting with Durocher, Wilcox says, “I had all the faith in the world that he could build an outstanding program.” He preaches responsibility: after an infraction by Wilcox, he called a team run at 6 a.m. and a sidelined Wilcox had to watch as fellow players jogged on her behalf.

“He wanted to make an example of me,” she says. “It worked.”

Forward Jillian Cardella (COM’13) says she always dreaded interviews with college coaches. “But when he called,” she says, “I felt very calm and was able to have a conversation with him. That’s the feeling he was able to convey.”

This season’s woes owe a lot to injuries, which forced Durocher to juggle the rotation. Defenseman Kasey Boucher (SMG’12) says the pressure hasn’t fazed their coach. Dowsing pregame nerves, Durocher says, is always his priority, ensuring that “our kids aren’t gripping the stick so tight that they can’t stickhandle the puck.”

Hockey cocaptains Brian Durocher (left) and Jack O’Callahan (CAS’79) hoist the Beanpot after the 1978 Beanpot tournament victory at Boston Garden. Photo by BU Photography

He knew disappointment during his own playing days (and we’re not talking here about what Parker jokingly calls the “Great Train Robbery,” when some of the hockey team heisted beer off a train behind Walter Brown Arena. Durocher wasn’t involved in the actual pilfering, but helped to carry the stash up Babcock Street, accompanied by his little brother, says Parker, who’d come to visit. That’s when the police showed up. “His brother couldn’t have been on campus three minutes and got arrested,” Parker says with a chuckle.)

No, Durocher’s real disappointment stemmed from a seesaw career on ice that paradoxically showcased his even keel and made him one of the most-liked players ever in the locker room, according to Parker. In Durocher’s sophomore year, Parker chose him to start over senior Pat Devlin (SED’76,’84) in the NCAA semifinals. The skate was on the other foot in the next year’s semifinals encore, when Durocher was benched in favor of future Olympian Jim Craig (SED’79), “probably the best goalie who ever played here,” Parker says. But that didn’t make it any easier senior year, with the NCAA championship on the line, when Durocher was passed over again for Craig, even though Durocher was team captain.

“Brian handled that extremely well,” Parker says. “When he was up, he knew how to treat Pat Devlin to make sure that Pat was comfortable with the decision. And when he wasn’t the guy chosen, he knew how to continue his role as captain.” (Durocher himself calls his junior year playing “awful.”)

Durocher also had thwarted hopes of helming a Division I men’s team, notably at Colgate, where he became interim coach in 1991, but lost out on the permanent job. He briefly considered quitting hockey, but chose to return to BU as associate head coach in 1996. “I had, more than most people could count, second interviews, which means you’re down to the final two, the final three. And it didn’t quite materialize,” he says. “And I was in my mid-40s, closing on the upper 40s, and I probably was at an experienced age, but who knew if or when Jack Parker was going to move on?” Then came the offer to start the women’s team, largely on the strength of his proven prowess as a recruiter.

Durocher devotes his downtime to—well, sports. He’s an avid spectator at BU games, showing the flag for his fellow coaches. “Most of the other teams probably know Brian Durocher better than they know me,” Parker says.

In a job affording little time off, that support, the mentor says of his mentee, is also a mark of character.

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