Friday, December 18, 2015

The New Haven Miracle

In their last game before the holiday break, Yale beat Boston University 3-2 in New Haven in what was considered a minor upset. This begs the question, when WAS the last time Yale beat BU at the Whale? A lengthy shuffle through the record book is required, but there it is: February 18, 1978. 38 seasons ago, the dark ages of no facemasks and steel-post skates. An Internet search reveals Peter Gammons calling Yale’s 7-5 win “college hockey’s upset of the decade” in Sports Illustrated. This demanded a closer look. What we found was a moment in time carved permanently into the memories of participants from both Red and Blue: Rhodes Scholars, 1980 Miracle Men and a coaching icon. It was also the finest hour for late coach Tim Taylor of Yale, colored by the backstory of a hockey friendship for the ages.

1978 was the “Year of the Terrier” in eastern hockey; the NCAA champs’ roster was a murderer’s row featuring three members from the Miracle on Ice: Jim Craig, Jack O’Callahan and Dave Silk. BU was 21-0 as they roared into New Haven to face a bunch of Ivy Leaguers that were three games below .500. How in the world did Yale knock off the beast of the east? We begin with BU’s captain.
Boston Media Darlings
“We were rolling and we were playing great,” said Jack O’Callahan last week, animated on his commute home to the Chicago suburbs. “We were cocky, for sure. That year we were getting more press than the Bruins, we were in the newspapers more than any of the other sports teams in Boston at that time.” Let that sink in--a college hockey team getting top billing in the pro sports mecca of Boston? Preposterous. Yet if you drop by BU’s famous eatery T. Anthony’s today, you will see a 1978 Boston Globe Magazine cover featuring O’Callahan and his best bud John Bethel framed in living color next to the takeout counter. Another era, indeed. 
Jackie Parker and the Brash Brothers
The Terriers team bus pulled into New Haven on a February Friday night before their Saturday matchup with 9-12-1 Yale, a game to be televised all over New England on Bob Gamere’s ECAC Game of the Week. These were the pre-Hockey East days, with Yale playing the role of Christians to the Lions of BU. “Yale didn’t belong out there,” was the brutally honest assessment of Yale’s equipment manager Ed Maturo, now serving Quinnipiac. “It was like David and Goliath.” Yet head coach Jackie Parker smelled trouble. Yes, Jackie Parker, not the mellowed 70-year-old statesman of the sport now known as Jack Parker. This was Parker as a brash 32 year old, with his signature red plaid sports jacket and his four pack-a-day smoking habit. It was no coincidence that his club was the cockiest and winningest team in the NCAA in 1978. “Any time we went into a building it was a hostile environment,” said Todd Johnson, a freshman center on that club and Parker’s close friend today. “They didn’t like BU. We fed off that, there was no question, and Jack would always tell us ‘Go out, and be cocky.’ He got a kick out of it. Yeah he’d say it in the room and we’d go out and warm up in front of packed houses. They didn’t like us. We liked that.”

Jackie Parker knew this team as well as any he’s ever coached, and he didn’t like what his gut told him the night before this game. “I could tell we didn’t seem as focused as we should be. When you don’t respect your opponent you get beat. And I thought a little of that was going on.” Like many disciplinarian coaches, he knocked on doors the night before. “Jack, he’d go room-to-room,” said Johnson. “He came into my room and he goes ‘What are you doing?’ I go “I really don’t feel well, and my mother told me to take a hot bath.’ He goes ‘Eh, OK.’ ” 

Parker’s own gut issues were realized in the lobby the next day at noon. His captain, O’Callahan, was AWOL. “We’re in New Haven in some hotel," said O'Callahan. "So we get up to go to the game and John Bethel my roommate both at school and on this trip, very good hockey player, we were like three minutes late for the bus going over to the rink. We get down to the lobby, again, we were cocky, right? And so we’re late for the bus and Parker left without us! He left me and Bethel at the hotel. And Bethel was kind of hot about it, I was like ‘whatever, let’s just get a cab.’ Well trying to get a cab in New Haven back then was next to impossible, and so we waited around for this cab for half an hour or so. So we get to the game late, you know Parker’s there, he’s really mad at us. I’m a team captain, Bethel was one of our top players, and he’s like ‘Who the hell do you guys think you are, being late for the bus? You cocky this and that.’ He just laid into us. Bethel starts arguing with him. We’re playing Yale, a team we’re expected to beat pretty handily, but the game started out on a funky note because he benched me and Bethel for the first period. Both of us are on the power play, both of us played a lot of minutes, and we sat there for the first period. Parker had a sour puss on, the team was like ‘What the hell is going on?’ Dissension on the bench, and you know, Bethel is in bad mood, Parker is in a bad mood. So anyway, that’s how it started.”

All of this was unbeknownst to the Yalies, who after years of dismal play, were enjoying a minor renaissance and were ready for their televised moment in the sun. “We felt good going into the game,” said sophomore Gary Lawrence, a future Rhodes Scholar and emblematic of Yale’s elite prep roster. “Tim (Taylor) prepared us well; we knew what we were up against: Silk, (Mark) Fidler and Bethel. This was a big game for Tim. He and Parker had known each other for a long time.” Parker and the late Tim Taylor had spent countless hours on the ice at the old Lynn Arena playing with and against each other throughout their hockey childhood. At Taylor’s 2013 memorial service, Parker spoke lovingly about how Taylor took it upon himself to help the younger Parker with his faceoffs. Boston native and Harvard man Taylor finally got his chance to be a head coach in New Haven, and it was in his second year that Yale was primed to serve notice via Boston media that there was a pretty decent hockey club two hours south of the Hub.
Tim Taylor: Pride in Preparation
There were three high-profile goalies in the belly of the Yale Whale that night: BU captain Brian Durocher; the soon to be famous Jim Craig; and Yale sophomore Keith Allain, who was busy setting save records for the Bulldogs. But it was the unheralded Yale freshman Mark “Chico” Rodrigues who stole the show during this matinee. “I saw the crowd and the TV cameras and I went nuts,” said Rodrigues to the Boston Globe in the post game. Ironically, Rodrigues had applied and been accepted to BU. "I don't think they even knew I played hockey." "It was one of the few games that Keith Allain didn’t play,” said Maturo. “There must have been 30 scouts, I think Chico made about 45 saves and he got drafted that year, from that one game (laughs). Never played many more after that.” So with Durocher and Rodrigues between the pipes and Allain and Craig on the bench, it was Game On. The Bulldogs scored early, but Silk answered for the Terriers a scant two minutes later. This set the tone for a high-scoring dogfight featuring 12 goals and four lead-changes, turning the elegant Yale Whale into a certifiable madhouse. “It was a wild game. If you’ve ever been in Ingalls rink, the Whale, I mean it was packed, SRO plus,” said Yale junior Kirk Bransfield, who proved to be another unlikely hero. “It was wild, wild, it was going crazy, holding on and holding on and staying in the game. CJ Marrottolo (North Haven, Conn.) who coaches at Sacred Heart, coached at Yale a long time said ‘I’ve been down there a million times and I’ve never seen the place that wild.’ The roof practically coming off the building. People cheering and screaming.” Johnson remembers the Bulldog fans taunting the Terriers. “Oh yeah, they’re chanting 21-1!”

Clashing Captains: O'Callahan and Blue (Yale SID)
But the Terriers were professional killers, and they crept into the lead in third period, and were handed a power play. BU had a phenomenal record in one-goal games that year, and were ready to turn out the lights on Yale and their raucous crowd. “I think everybody in the rink is thinking BU is going to score and pull ahead by two,” said Taylor in the post game. But a blocked shot, one of dozens for the fearless Elis this afternoon, flipped the script. “Donny Blue blocked a shot,” said Bransfield. Blue, the captain of these upstarts, scooped up the puck and sailed into the BU zone flanked by Lawrence on a two-on-one. Blue chose to shoot rather than pass, then crashed the net and stashed the rebound to tie the game at four with his brilliant short-handed goal, rattling the champs and re-igniting the combustible crowd. And with five minutes remaining in a tie game, the Bulldogs tore the roof off the sucka.

Bransfield was a defensive defenseman, but he cheated into the attacking zone and collected an errant puck to score his first goal in two years. “Jimmy MacDonald was fighting for it, and he threw it out in front of the net and it came off Anders Carlsson’s skate right onto my stick, and I just let it rip. It beat Durocher up high to the Zamboni side of the rink. The place went wild.” And for the first time ever, the stoic Tim Taylor actually succumbed to emotion. “Tim was raucous on the bench,” said Bransfield. “There was a huge celebration when we went ahead 5-4, the band was going wild in the rink. I came skating across, did the toe jump with the stick up in the air. Taylor’s on the bench, he’s got his fist pumping.” Seven seconds into mosh pit party the Bulldogs smoked Durocher again and bedlam reigned. “I don’t think he (Taylor) even saw David Harrington’s goal, being the 6th goal, because he’s too busy, got his hands on my shoulders talking to me, saying all sorts of stuff.” The on ice party continued to rage, as two minutes later MacDonald set up Carlsson for the Bulldogs' symbolic knockout. Four unanswered goals, three in exactly two minutes and 10 seconds. Bob Gamere screamed into his mic, “THE ROUT IS ON.”  Down goes Frazier, Down goes Frazier. No one had ever KO’d BU, let alone a bunch of Ivy Leaguers with a losing record. The final score appeared to be a respectable 7-5, but Jackie Parker’s cocksure Terriers had been spanked, and spanked hard. BU’s Johnson reflected. “Not good. Not only did you lose, but you lost to an Ivy League school that didn’t win very often. It wasn’t good.”  

This was not, however, the typical struggling Yale squad of the previous decade. Taylor was the new sheriff in town, a chess master who had already orchestrated upsets over eastern powers BC, Cornell and Providence before this gem, a performance the Globe's Joe Concannon called a "masterpiece." He knew Parker’s team, with its devastating power play designed to find the off-wing shooter. With a week to teach, his squad was fully briefed. “It was amazing how well we were prepared for that game,” said Bransfield. “Every single time that puck would go over there, you’d be saying to yourself  ‘I can block this shot, I can block this shot, because you knew it was coming, you knew almost methodically where it was, second nature, because he had gone over it so much that week.”

Taylor had beaten his protégé, and Parker acknowledged the significance. “We were the #1 team in the nation, undefeated and untied, Timmy was just starting to build a program. That was a real benchmark win for Yale under Tim Taylor.” The two old pals had a friendly chat before the game, and an unexpected three-way meeting afterward in the bowels of the still shaking Whale. “My oldest daughter Allison, probably ten years old at the time, always took the road trips with us,” said Parker. “I was in the dressing room with the team afterwards, and then I came out and she was standing outside the door crying. And I said ‘Allison, what’s the matter?’ She said, ‘What’s the matter? We lost!’ Because, you know, she had never seen us lose that year yet. And I said, ‘Allison, you don’t go crazy when you win, you shouldn’t cry when you lose.’ ‘Oh, I’m not crying just because we lost. I’m crying because we lost to such a lousy team!’ And I remember saying ‘Alison, come with me.’ And I brought her down to Timmy’s office. ‘Timmy, Come out here. I just want to tell you some perspective my daughter has on this.’ ”

Happier Times for Durocher and O'Callahan
Levity also flows from the players on both sides, as this game resonates in perpetuity. Chicago resident O’Callahan was in New York for a post 9-11 fundraiser, chock full of Big Apple financial heavyweights. He found himself in a room full of Yalies, three of whom who played in that fateful game. “They found out I was in the room,” said O’Callahan. “These three guys, good naturedly of course, harassed me the whole night about that game. It was like the greatest thing that ever happened to Yale hockey was knocking off the undefeated BU team in 1978. Here we are 20 years later they wouldn’t leave me alone about it. They were telling everybody ‘Yeah we kicked your ass!’”

“I was with my brothers, Steve, Bobby and Jimmy MacDonald,” said Dave Harrington, who along with MacDonald, combined for four points on that historic night. “Bobby has a photographic memory and was able to take Jack through the game shift by shift. It was laugh-out-loud funny.”

Shortly after that fateful game, O’Callahan and his mates went on to win the Beanpot, the NCAA championship, and then dwarfed all that by capturing Olympic gold. He was later portrayed in a popular movie about those magical two weeks in Lake Placid. Knowing a thing or two about upsets, he gets the final word.

“That, was Yale’s Miracle on Ice moment.”


  1. Great piece rap. I had a picture of fiddler on my wall as a kid. I have a picture of Gary Lawrence now. Lip

  2. Thanks Erik. You should hear Murphs version of events. Merry Christmas, Rap

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