Great on-ice vision at BU
Supported very well, program is thriving
More than six years ago, Boston University athletic director Mike Lynch sat down for lunch with one of his program’s biggest benefactors. The topic of conversation was the upcoming launch of BU’s women’s varsity hockey program, slated to start in the fall of 2005.
“I said within 10 years, we’d be fighting for a spot in the national title game,’’ Lynch said.
They were confident words for an AD less than a year into a new gig, and Lynch believed them whole-heartedly.
Six years later, he can’t believe how right he was.
The Terriers bested Lynch’s prediction by four years. Last spring, BU fell to WCHA powerhouse Wisconsin, 4-1, in the national final. The loss capped the most successful season in program history, highlighted by a first-ever Hockey East regular-season crown.
It also followed five seasons of continual growth, a testament to the university’s commitment to the program that coach Brian Durocher recognized from the very beginning.
Like so much of what has unfolded athletically at BU in the last decade, the women’s hockey program’s success can be linked to former president John Silber’s decision to cut BU’s football program. The move was met by venomous opposition, highlighted by Sports Illustrated’s Gerry Callahan’s reference to Silber as, “An arrogant little despot who can’t handle the fact that Howard Stern is BU’s most accomplished alumnus.’’
Callahan saw an excuse. Silber saw an opportunity. The program was hemorrhaging the university’s money - money that could go toward supporting other athletic programs.
The cut led to women’s hockey because it led to the construction of Agganis Arena. The athletic department had been hoping to add women’s hockey to BU athletics for years, but BU’s old venue, Walter Brown Arena, was unfit to house two hockey programs.
Agganis’s construction left Walter Brown open for the taking. With a rink already built, the school turned its attention to hiring a coach. Men’s hockey coach Jack Parker pushed hard for one of his assistants, former goaltender Durocher.
As it turns out, Parker has some sway in the BU athletic department. Durocher got the job.
Durocher primarily had been an assistant coach at various men’s programs since 1978. He’d gained notoriety for his abilities as a recruiter. He was bright, motivated, and skilled in the art of talking to players and parents.
He also knew little about the women’s game. Durocher took the job in June 2004, giving him 14 months to piece together a roster ready to handle a Hockey East schedule.
Durocher embarked on a cross-continent tour as a one-man band. He opted to gather the lay of the land before reaching out to hire assistants, putting the weight of landing that first recruiting class solely on his shoulders.
“I basically traveled every other week,’’ Durocher said. “And when I was home, I’d be entertaining two, three, four, five, six, seven different kids. Maybe on-campus visits, unofficial visits, phone calls, communication, you know, thousands of e-mails because I had to kind of put a whole team on the ice.’’
Durocher’s experience recruiting in the men’s game proved invaluable. Many of his contacts were parents with teenagers of their own. If a former pal had a daughter, she was somewhere playing hockey. If that pal didn’t have a daughter, he knew someone who did.
Durocher spread about 4 1/2 scholarships around his initial roster. The next year, he added 4 1/2 more, a pace he kept up until reaching the maximum 18 in the program’s fifth season.
The recruiting classes got stronger each year. Durocher’s first marquee recruit was Melissa Anderson, a former MVP at the Women’s U-18 Hockey Challenge. Touted Canadian imports such as Tara Watchorn and Jenelle Kohanchuk followed suit.
Two years after that, Durocher landed arguably his two most important recruits. Or maybe it should be said the recruits landed him.
Catherine Ward was the first to reach out to Durocher. Ward had shined in three years at McGill University in Montreal. She’d later earn a gold medal skating for Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
After the Olympics, she wanted to go to graduate school, and BU’s business school was a perfect fit. Durocher welcomed her with open arms. In her only season, the defenseman was named the program’s first-ever All-American.
Jenn Wakefield had a similar story. She’d served as an alternate on the 2010 Canadian Olympic squad. The year before, she’d been a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, as the top women’s collegiate hockey player, with the University of New Hampshire.
After taking the year off with the Olympic squad, Wakefield didn’t want to go back to UNH. “I realized my preferences of where I wanted to live had changed,’’ she said. She wanted to be in a city, and she liked what she heard about the new team on Commonwealth Avenue.
She called Durocher. Durocher, of course, said come on down.
The word was spreading. BU had its own rink, a rarity in the women’s game. Its training facilities were top-notch, and constantly were being upgraded. The athletic department was making plans to put $3 million to $5 million into renovations at Walter Brown. Durocher was proving a fantastic coach. The program was starting to win. Hockey East was getting more competitive.
Ward’s and Wakefield’s acquisitions got Durocher thinking. There was a teenage Canadian, Marie-Philip Poulin, the female Sidney Crosby, who had crossed BU off her list early in the recruiting process.
Durocher was feeling brave. He put in one more phone call to Poulin. He hyped Ward and Wakefield as proof that BU was on the rise. He had no idea that, in preparation for the 2010 Olympics, the Ward family had hosted Poulin in their Montreal home. “They kind of had a big-sister, little-sister thing going on,’’ Durocher said.
Poulin scored both goals in Team Canada’s 2-0 win over the US in the Olympic gold medal game. A few months later, she made her debut in Scarlet and White.
She, along with Ward and Wakefield, guided the Terriers to the NCAA championship game last season. This season, BU enters as the favorite to win Hockey East. The USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine coaches’ poll ranked the Terriers No. 3 nationally.
Not bad, considering it’s the program’s seventh season.
“It wasn’t one of those situations where the administration said, ‘Well, let’s see how we do and then we’ll add a little help,’ ’’ Durocher said. “They were committed, and that’s certainly made it more exciting. I haven’t looked back one iota since.’’