The temperature inside Walter Brown Arena is balmier than the mid-teens mercury outside on this morning in early January, as the men’s ice hockey team genuflects on the ice before head coach David Quinn. It’s the posture the players take to listen to the coach’s pep talk, but Quinn (CAS’89), now midway through his first season leading BU’s storied skaters, has little to be peppy about.
“We had a tough loss on Saturday night,” he says, referring to a 7-4 heartbreaker at Harvard that despite a late BU rally saw the game slip through the Terriers’ paws. His tone is matter-of-fact, businesslike; there’s no angry castigating. “You caught a good day,” cocaptain Garrett Noonan (CGS’12, MET’14) confides later.
The loss was the most recent in a frustrating season that on the eve of next week’s Beanpot tournament stands at 7-13-2. Quinn exhorts his skaters to ratchet up their intensity level, then moves on to a description of their first drill of the day, quickly diagramming it on a whiteboard hung from the protective Plexiglas that surrounds the rink.
For the next hour-plus, he runs the team through a variety of maneuvers, usually skating the action’s perimeter, occasionally dodging a player (Quinn wears no pads, and a baseball cap instead of a helmet). He sometimes surveys the action from a corner of the ice or perched on the boards. He shouts instructions and advice in a gravelly voice evoking a drill instructor, the high decibels a necessity amid the din of skates slicing ice and the boom of pucks slamming the wall.
Warning that tentative skating inspires confidence in opponents, he yells, “We come out half-assed and slow, they get excited.…We want to attack, we want to put fear in the other team, and that’s how you do it—with speed, purpose.”
The next day, the team loses 4-2 to Dartmouth, whose dismal 2-11-2 record might suggest a pushover. At his postgame press conference, a somber Quinn says it was Dartmouth’s intensity level that made the difference: “They just won battles.…The third goal just summarizes the game in a nutshell. They win a faceoff, everybody’s in the right position, and three guys lose one-on-one battles when they’re two feet away. Story of the game.
“Story of our season,” he adds. Asked what could turn things around, he’s blunt. “They need to want to win more.…We’ve lost that along the way somehow.…It’s mental laziness, more than anything. And it’s going to change.”
Quinn’s style puts team cocaptain Patrick MacGregor in mind of retired coach Jack Parker (SMG’68, Hon.’97), whose 40-year tenure made victory as pervasive as cold in a Boston winter. The new coach “always stresses us to move our feet and play physical,” says MacGregor (CGS’12, COM’14).
On the ice, Parker famously snarled at players or refs who didn’t meet with his approval. Is Quinn different? “Nooo, I don’t think he’s less stern,” says Noonan with a smile. “If you’re not doing something right, everybody sees it, and he lets you know it. There are so many similarities with Parker. They’re both hard and get on you, but at the same time, they love you and want what’s best for you.”
“On a bad day,” he adds, “you’d know they were in the building.”
The new coach has managed to put his own fingerprints on BU hockey. Peek at practice Mondays and you’ll likely glimpse a drill that, players say, arrived with Quinn: defensemen skating backwards while maneuvering the puck. MacGregor calls this “extra skills.” That’s not a euphemism for remedial work with knocked-silly athletes. The drill is one of the ways that Quinn, the team’s first new leader since the Nixon administration, has crammed a lot of teaching into his first few months on the job. “All of the defensemen have benefited from these extra skills days,” MacGregor says.
If Quinn takes no excuses, neither does he make any. (“I certainly don’t think I did a good job coaching our team or preparing for tonight,” he said following a November loss.) In fairness, the challenging season owes much to the inexperience of a team with nine freshman players. A first-year coach with a large first-year bench makes for a daunting learning curve, Quinn says, with “them getting used to me and what I’m looking for. Usually, when you’re recruiting Division I athletes, they’re the best player at their high school level or junior level just because of God-given ability. Here, everybody’s good. And if you’re going to have success here, you need to approach every day with a gamelike mentality, and that’s what we’re trying to create.”
To do that, he draws on his own formidable experience, as a star defenseman for Parker in the ’80s, as an aspiring NHL draftee until a form of hemophilia derailed his playing career, and as a coach. Quinn was an associate coach under Parker and later assistant coach of the Colorado Avalanche, from whom BU headhunted him. He’s never married, he says, because with a bouncing-ball career, “I’ve moved a lot”—6 times in the last 10 years. He looks like central casting’s idea of a coach. Solidly built at 6-foot-1 and just north of 200 pounds, he usually runs five miles before getting to the office and he shakes hands the way a pitbull grips a steak.
His interior makeup, he says, matches Parker’s emotional voltage, but with more patience. “I had to bench one of our players early in the second period” against UMass last fall, Quinn says. “He took a second penalty, and he didn’t play another shift the rest of the game. Well, the next morning I grabbed him and said, ‘Hey, that’s not fun for me. I don’t enjoy doing that. But I owe it to you and I owe it to this team to make you the best player you can be, and that can’t happen.’”
By contrast, Parker, “when I played for him…wouldn’t have said a word.”
The difference in style is in part generational. Students today are “much more sensitive,” Quinn says. “It’s not the Bobby Knight way. You can’t be a dictator.” Quinn reads books on psychology and coaching to hone his methods; this is one area where his time coaching in the NHL takes him only so far. Pro hockey teams care only about winning, massaging millionaire players’ psyches be damned. In the pros, he says, “there’s no Dr. Phil moment.”
But much like in the NHL, Quinn knows his tenure boils down to the unforgiving metrics of sports: “At the end of the day, if we’re 0-34, I don’t have a job.” For all that pressure, his sleep is untroubled by having to fill Parker’s skates. “If I consumed myself with that, I’d drive myself crazy,” he says. “I just have to be the best coach I can be for these kids.” That’s not to say his daily responsibilities don’t wear on the head coach. “I can’t tell you how many times you wake up at 4 in the morning and you never go back to sleep.”
Coaching his first exhibition game from the bench last fall, Quinn’s thoughts strayed not to Parker, but to his late father, “an old-school cop” who knew nothing of hockey, but taught his son a lot about life.
“He was very humble, very straight and real,” says Quinn, who was drafted by the Minnesota North Stars in 1984 while still in high school. He decided to attend BU, expecting to go pro after graduation, so he told his dad he was going to pass on working that summer. “He said, ‘I got you a job at Coca-Cola; you show up Monday morning at 7 o’clock.’ I was delivering 500 cases of soda all summer. I’m wearing one of those stupid polyester uniforms, driving a Coke truck, delivering soda every morning. That was my father.”
That hard lesson of setting aside wants in the face of reality would reinforce itself when illness killed Quinn’s pro chances, and that’s a life lesson he hopes to pass on to his players. “I was a student-athlete who was a first-round draft pick,” he says. “I thought I was going to play 15 years in the NHL. Well, guess what? That didn’t happen. And I know our players all think that. That’s why I think it’s important for me to shed light on the other aspects of their lives and to help them prepare for the next phase of their life. ’Cause hockey is going to end.”