By Patrick Donnelly
When Boston University announced Albie O’Connell would not be returning as head coach of the men’s hockey team on March 30, the athletic department set out on a nearly month-long quest in search of his replacement.
In the end, O’Connell’s successor was the guy standing an arm’s length to his left on the bench last season.
Last Thursday, the university named Jay Pandolfo as the program’s 13th head coach in its soon-to-be 101 season history. On Monday, the team officially introduced Pandolfo during a press conference in the Francis D. Burke Club room at Agganis Arena.
When the news broke of O’Connell’s departure in March, speculation around Pandolfo immediately began, and reports of his imminent hire emerged in the days leading up to the announcement on May 5. Long before the word officially came, athletic director Drew Marrochello had tabbed the now former associate head coach for the job.
“When we decided that a change was in order for our program, it was our intent to set out on a national search,” Marrochello said in Monday’s press conference. “We had targeted May 1 as our date of appointment. I can tell you that the search was concluded before that. We simply had some administrative items to attend to, and here we are.”
The initial goal was apparently to have a coach in place before the April 20 start of the American Hockey Coaches Association Convention, but Marrochello eventually found himself in no hurry.
“I think sometimes, searches go really quickly. You see some in college basketball that they name a coach in one day. Then, there are some searches that go nine months long. I think you can strike a happy balance,” he said. “I had it in the front of my head that this is a 10 to 15 to 20-year hire, if it’s done right. It’s not a one-day hire. … I kept saying to guys, ‘This is not even about the past. It’s about the future.’ I wanted to make sure we were set for the next 10 to 15 years.”
Although the search was ongoing, Pandolfo had basically assumed the position already, fulfilling interim duties as head coach and attending the coaches’ convention with Marrochello in Naples, Fla.
“He was the associate head coach, so run the program, make decisions, meet with the kids, monitor morale, have tough conversations with the guys,” Marrochello said. “[In Naples] he sat with other Hockey East head coaches. He was in the joint meetings with the athletic directors. We prepared for those meetings together as if he were the head coach. We talked about institutional positions and how we were going to vote on what the bylaws were.
“I’ll say that I think it was great for me to see him in that setting and in this role, and I think it was good for him to be in that setting and in this role. I think he handled that interim assignment great.”
Part of the process for Marrochello was involving the team’s leadership group, which included rising senior captain Dom Fensore and six other members of the team. He wanted their input.
“I wanted to hear their thoughts about college hockey,” Marrochello said. “I wanted to hear their thoughts about coaches – coaches that they could speak positively for, and coaches that they might not speak so positively about. What worked and what didn’t. And I certainly knew their affection for Jay.”
From the end of the 2017-18 season, 26 players have left Comm. Ave prematurely, whether via the transfer portal or signing contracts, including seniors who took their extra seasons of eligibility elsewhere. On the other side of that coin, BU has brought in four freshmen midseason as well as eight transfers, either graduate or undergraduate, in that span on top of the usual crops of first-years that come in each year.
While a handful of players entered the transfer portal this year, most notably junior forward Robert Mastrosimone, and only defenseman Alex Vlasic turned professional, the vote of confidence from the remaining Terriers afforded the athletic department the chance to exhaust its options.
“I would say that when the players said to me, ‘We’re not leaving. We’re committed here.’ … it gave me the luxury to dive in a little bit more,” Marrochello said. “When I told them we were going to conduct a national search, and told him of our plan and timeline, they said, speaking on behalf of the team, ‘Do what you need to do. We’re not leaving. We’re committed to this program. We know that you’re gonna find somebody great, and we know that there’s going to be a lot of interest in this job. But we’re not going into the transfer portal or signing contracts. We’re committed.’”
One of the biggest questions posed to that group representing the team was whether or not it is important to like their coach.
“Uniformly, they all announced yes, ‘We want to like who we play for,’” Marrochello said. “I think you have to have that in the back of your mind. The kids aren’t making the decision, but you certainly want to present somebody that they’re happy to be around because you’re at the rink so much. You’re with each other so much, and I think you need to have somebody that they feel good about. That was something I wanted, a good role model for these guys.”
Knowing the amount of roster turnover the last few years have seen, Pandolfo and Marrochello struck common ground on roster makeup, retaining and developing players. The latter of those is an area Pandolfo specialized in after a decorated NHL career before he returned to BU last summer, serving as a player development coach with the Boston Bruins in 2014-15 and the director of player development in 2015-16 prior to being an assistant coach for five seasons. In the player development role, Pandolfo worked with Boston’s drafted prospects, which in that two-year span most notably included current NHL players David Pastrnak, Danton Heinen, former Terrier captain Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo and Jake DeBrusk.
“Our talks also yielded fruitful thoughts on how to build a team, talking about roster construction, not just talent acquisition, or team composition,” Marrochello said. “I love his development background and the attention he puts into this area because it’s about developing players. It’s not just about replacing players to get them better.”
He continued, “The development of players, I think it’s important that we’ve got kids who – you might not play a huge role as a freshman, but are you going to stick it out? You’re going to get better as a sophomore, you’re going to stay as a junior and you’re going to flourish as a senior. I think Jay and I really shared a lot of time, a lot of thoughts on that process of evolution because I think that’s what we need to do here at BU a little bit better.”
In addition to that strong pro career that featured two Stanley Cups and 899 regular season NHL games, Pandolfo won everything there was to win when he played at BU – a national championship, two Beanpots and two Hockey East championships. He was captain in 1995-96 and went to four straight Frozen Fours. He’s a Terrier through and through, a lot like his predecessors.
O’Connell was once a Terrier captain and assistant coach under David Quinn, who was a captain and assistant coach. Before him, legendary head coach Jack Parker was also a former captain and assistant coach before becoming head coach, a role he held for 40 years. Before Parker, Jack Kelley was head coach years after he also had dazzling career as a defenseman for BU. Each of the four earned their degrees as well.
A pattern is easy to discern in the hiring history. Pandolfo checks each of those boxes, to say the least. He and Quinn are the only two to have experience as NHL assistants at the time of their hires, and Pandolfo is the only one to have played in the NHL and win the Cup.
Similar to when Parker retired and Quinn left BU to take over the New York Rangers, BU’s hiring pattern sparked debate. Should they stay within the family? Or just get the best coach they can, no matter who? Even for Quinn, who was not on the Terrier bench when he replaced Parker in 2013, having left for professional coaching four years earlier, his resume still fit the mold.
The athletic department was aware of the two sides again in the latest search.
“I think that there’s history that we have hired, whether it’s however you define from within. David Quinn goes away [in 2009], but he’s still an alum,” Marrochello said. “I looked at this the same way I looked at it last time, that there’s a group that feels we probably always should hire from within, and then there’s a group who feels that we don’t necessarily need to. I would say that the group that means the most to me with that is our former players, and frankly, they’re split on that.
“Some say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to have a BU guy,’ and some say, ‘Just go get the best coach.’”
Now with Pandolfo at the helm, the program feels it has the best of both worlds.
Marrochello said, “I just think in this case, the best coach and the best fit happens to be a BU guy.”