By Scott Weighart, Director of Learning and Development
(Photo Credit: Junhee Chung/BU Athletics)
Last Friday night Boston University retired the number of Jack Parker, who stepped down as coach after leading the team for a full 40 years behind the bench. During that time, Parker led the team to three national championships.
At the rink that night, I watched as the banner with his number on it was revealed—right next to the only other number ever retired by the BU hockey team: No. 24, Travis Roy. That reminded me of the toughest chapter in Parker’s storied coaching career.
On October 20, 1995, Travis Roy played his first—and last—game as a member of the Terriers. My wife and I were there. The evening started out as a high-spirited celebration. The team had won one of those national championships back in April, and the championship banner was hoisted due to an enormous ovation before the opening faceoff.
Better still, the Terriers came out and scored a goal almost immediately. With the crowd still roaring, Travis Roy took the ice for the first and only time at BU. The faceoff went into the offensive zone, and Roy skated hard toward a North Dakota player chasing the puck behind the net. Looking to make a check, Roy seemed to catch a skate. He went headfirst into the boards and never got up.
In the crowd, we were in a state of disbelief and denial. Even when I heard he had cracked his vertebra, it didn’t really sink in that he would be confined to a wheelchair—paralyzed for life.
After visiting Travis in the hospital—clinging to life initially—Parker was devastated… and at a loss for how to deal with this crisis as the leader of his team. He met with the team’s sports psychologist, Dr. Len Zaichkowsky, looking for advice. “You’re a reactor, Jack,” Zaichkowsky told him. “Trust the fact that when the time comes to address the team, you’ll find the words to say… and they will be the right words.”
So Parker met with the team. “After what’s happened, I’ll understand completely if you decide that you don’t want to play anymore,” Parker told them. “Since it happened, I’ve asked myself if I still want to coach. My answer to that is yes, I do… and I think that the right answer is for you to keep playing. But it’s your decision.”
No one quit. The team talked about how they wanted to go forward as a team while honoring the spirit of their fallen teammate. They decided to have captain Jay Pandolfo carry Travis Roy’s jersey onto the ice for each game that year, hanging it up behind the bench as a constant reminder of his presence.
Despite the incredible level of shock and sadness, Parker and Pandolfo led the team successfully through the crisis. Amazingly, the team made it back to the national tournament and all the way to the Final Four—today referred to as the Frozen Four—before losing in the national semifinals. Pandolfo would go on to play 899 games in the National Hockey League over 15 seasons, while Parker ended up with 894 wins as a coach.
After Friday’s game, he said that Roy’s injury was like A Tale of Two Cities for him: It was the worst of times, but also the best of times. Seeing a virile athlete reduced to a quadriplegic in the blink of an eye was the worst thing that happened in his 40-year coaching career. But the way his players, the BU community, and the sports world in general responded to the crisis was the best thing that happened to him.
Almost every leader enjoys good runs and successful moments. But your leadership legacy is most likely to be defined by crisis leadership—how you react to challenges and adversity. Can you maintain your composure and perspective, speaking from the heart about what’s happening? Can you acknowledge how tough things are but then get people to rally around getting through the tough times?
Your ability to lead through the worst of times will ensure that the best of times will return.