Thursday, November 30, 2017
The Education of Mark Fidler
They had seen each other on the concrete campus and in the weight room. Six talented freshmen, the best recruits in the state, would all be vying for precious playing time at BU. Mark Fidler and Billy Cotter, the dynamic scoring tandem from state champion Matignon, were the best known, but Paul Miller from Billerica, Daryl MacLeod of Melrose, and Todd Johnson of Wayland were all massive point producers in high school. Defenseman Tim Kimball of Beverly was all-state. When the supreme sextet stepped on the ice to compete for jobs for the four-time reigning ECAC champs, they realized they had better be flexible or be gone.
“You knew making the team would be tough,” said MacLeod, the man- child who would come to be known as the strongest player on the team. “There was so much talent there. As a freshman skating around that first day, I remember saying—‘Wow, there’s some serious players here.’”
Todd Johnson averaged more than forty goals a year for Buckingham Browne & Nichols prep in Cambridge, yet he soon discovered that he would have to think defense first if he were to get a sniff of playing time with Boston University. “That was a very different role for me, to suddenly be a defensive player from anything I had ever done prior. All of a sudden you’re focused on your defensive role; it was different, almost survival. But it was an opportunity to play.”
The freshman with the best opportunity to play was Mark Fidler, for a variety of reasons. First, he was a scoring dynamo coming off a ninety- six-point high school season that led the state, and second, he was al- ready part of the BU hockey family. Fidler’s brother, Mike, broke ground on the new Charlestown-to-BU player pipeline. Mike was an all-time favorite of Parker, so younger brother Mark would be given every opportunity to thrive.
Mark came into BU’s six-week training camp free and easy, without the gnawing insecurities shared by the other five blue-chip prospects. He had played a little street hockey, but hadn’t stepped on the ice since leading Matignon to the state title in March. As he tied up his plastic-shelled Lange skates before sauntering onto the ice at Walter Brown Arena for Day One, Fidler didn’t bother looking at the minute-by-minute itinerary of Parker’s practice schedule posted on the wall. He had no inkling that this day would be the “Come to Jesus” moment of his hockey career.
Parker started his training camp on October 15 every year. For a man who lives a very intentional life, there wasn’t much science behind that chosen date. “I used to start practice on October 15 just because that was my lucky day,” said Parker, “my oldest daughter Allison’s birthday. We didn’t play a game until Thanksgiving, so you had a long time to get in shape.” And Parker had a plan to weed out the players who, unwisely, did nothing to prepare—someone exactly like Fidler. “We made it miserable for them right off the bat.”
Fidler had never known such misery on ice. “For one straight hour, we skated harder than I ever skated in my life,” said Fidler. “I was about thirty-five pounds overweight—I hadn’t skated all summer.” Fidler, a star of stars in high school, had never really been pushed at Matignon. “We didn’t skate, we scrimmaged,” said Fidler.
In moments, Fidler went from a kid immersed in blissful ignorance to a puppy having his nose pushed down into a mess on the rug. “I remember when we started practice,” said Parker, “he couldn’t skate backwards.” Parker was a stickler for all his players to be a master at backwards skating, regardless of position. “Why does a forward have to learn to skate backwards?” asked Parker rhetorically. “Because it makes you a better skater, it makes you more con dent, and it’s a good conditioner.” And it was nearly the death of Fidler.
Four cones were set up at center ice; the players would do two big back- ward skating loops and then pivot at the blue line and sprint to the end boards. “He couldn’t get around the cones,” said Parker. “He was falling down, he’d get up, and fall down again.” Meanwhile, Parker had a roster full of the best skaters in the country, guys like Tony Meagher and Marc Hetnik, players who could jet around in top gear for what seemed like an eternity. “These kids could y by me,” said Fidler, recalling his misery.
After what was the longest hour of his life, young Fidler needed all his remaining strength just to stagger into the locker room, face beet red. “I was dead. I barely made it off the freaking ice.” He managed to peel off his sweat-soaked equipment and just stood motionless in the shower, letting the warm water cascade over him, completely spent. Then his senses detected something was amiss. “I’m in the shower, but no one else is in there.” Moments later, one person arrived: Parker.
“What hell are you doing?” shouted Parker. “Why?” said Fidler. “We got another hour and half of practice!” “There’s no way I can go out there.” Fidler knew Parker as a man with a sense of humor and often couldn’t tell when Parker was joking. Fidler was so out of sorts, he thought maybe it was all a practical joke. “Are you kidding around?” asked Fidler, hoping against hope.
Parker’s eyes narrowed and became dead serious. “Get your stuff on, and get your ass out on the ice.”
It took Fidler ten long minutes to strap on his soaking gear, and then commenced his humiliating skate of shame. He glided past the team in a huddle. “Everybody looked at me coming back on the ice,” said Fidler, the episode burning a permanent scar into his memory. He was like a human lamppost for the rest of the session, a science project in the effects of lactic acid. Incredibly, a hockey rink had become the personal hell for the most decorated high school player in the state.
Meanwhile, the other freshmen had their own tribulations. In the second session, Parker had finally allowed pucks on the ice and separated his forwards and defensemen for rink-length one-on-one drills. Senior Dick Lamby could sense the competitive fear and adrenaline permeating the ice. He relied on his weapon of choice, a carefully honed stick, to keep these competitive young pups at bay.
MacLeod was standing in line when his old travel-team partner gave him a heads up. “Billy Cotter said to me, ‘Watch Lamby, he’s really going after the freshmen.’ So I got tipped off that he was doing that. It ended up being me and him.”
As MacLeod cut across center ice, Lamby jabbed him with the end of his pointy stick. “I thought he speared me,” said MacLeod. “And then I went after him.” The two strongest guys on the ice, senior versus freshman, attacked each other like a couple of rutting rams.
“Yeah, we dropped our gloves,” said MacLeod. The entire practice stopped to see the battle of young buck versus the elder bull. It was a scene right out of National Geographic.
“Dick Lamby tried to play the role,” said Todd Johnson, MacLeod’s roommate that season, “and Daryl threw him right down on the ice. It was a riot.” It was a massive statement, six weeks before the opening game’s puck drop. Before that day was done, Lamby demonstrated his leadership away from the rink.
“That night, he came to my room,” said MacLeod. “We went out for a few beers; it was over. Later, Parker told me, ‘After that happened, I knew it was going to be a great year.’ It was just so competitive, that’s really what it was.”
Parker’s prized recruit Fidler was in agony after Day One. “At the end of the hour and a half we came in again, and I couldn’t even walk. I couldn’t even get undressed. Guys were coming up to me, they wouldn’t talk, they would just tap me on the shoulder. They knew how out of shape I was, they knew how bad it was for me. That’s how hard you skated in practice.”
The coach realized that his premier recruit would require a major overhaul, starting immediately. “Parker called me in,” said Fidler.
“Were you screwing around? Did you know there was another part of practice?” asked Parker.
“Did you think I would get undressed if I thought we were still practicing?” countered Fidler. “You know what an idiot I looked like in front of my teammates, coming out again?”
That night, his body screaming for relief, Fidler picked up the phone and made a call he never could have imagined making.
“Ma, I’m never going to make this team,” said young Mark. Jane Fidler paused before answering, “What are you talking about?” “At the end of drills, they’re leaving me 10–15 feet behind—I’ll never make this freaking team!” whined her youngest son. The Fidler matriarch was now helping her third child through college.
By now, she and Parker had an implicit understanding. No one named Fidler was getting cut from BU.
“Trust me, you’re going to make the team.”
“I’m telling you right now, I won’t make the team,” said Mark. “I couldn’t last an hour in practice. I’m not kidding around! I better think about going somewhere else.”
Jane Fidler smiled on the other end of the line, a cigarette lit. She proceeded to talk her youngest son out of transferring and convinced him to give it another day.
“I never thought I would get in shape,” said Fidler. “My hockey be- fore then, you didn’t skate unless you had the puck. Parker would skate beside me at practice and say, ‘You work hard today, it will be easier tomorrow. If you loaf today, you’ll be back in the same spot tomorrow.’ I was petrified.”
Parker would need all of this training camp to reshape this freshman, but he knew it was a worthy cause. He had scouted Fidler carefully. He may not have been a great skater, but he was a magnificent shooter. It was crucial to get him into the lineup and onto the power play if BU was to replace the fifty-seven goals that had graduated with Meagher and Eruzione.
The first thing Parker enacted was a forced separation between Fidler and his permanent wingman Billy Cotter, the combo that had torn up the Massachusetts Catholic league for three straight years. Fidler was miffed. “He never played us together, never put us together in practice, he wasn’t on the power play, nothing.” A week into camp, Fidler marched into Parker’s office.
“What’s the story?” asked Fidler.
“You won’t be playing college together,” said Parker, who had made up his mind long ago. “You won’t be able to do that stuff in college.” In the minds of the BU coaching staff, Fidler and Cotter weren’t “honest” players in high school, meaning that they ignored their defensive zone while rampaging through high school defenses, registering ridiculous offensive numbers while at Matignon.
“I didn’t play in my own zone in high school,” said Fidler, and it became obvious in his first scrimmage under Parker. With Fidler’s unit in the defensive zone, the freshman center was floating between the circles, hoping to locate an errant puck. Parker’s whistle screeched.
“You have no idea who your guy is, do you?” barked the coach. “No,” said Fidler. “You are lost!” said Parker. “How do you not know who your guy is?” “In my four years in high school, we were never in my zone,” said Fidler. “You’re going to have to know now, there’s no overlooking that. You don’t play in your own zone, you don’t play.”
Ice time: that was Parker’s carrot and stick. Fellow freshman Johnson did not need to be told that defensive awareness was the key to earning precious ice time. Desperate to play, he learned a new skill: penalty killing. “You make whatever adjustment you got to make; it was your opportunity to play,” said Johnson. “But you better do it well, or you’re not going to play. He never said that, but it was crystal clear.” Be good or be gone.
So while freshmen McLeod, Cotter, Johnson, and to a lesser extent Miller all scrambled to find a niche to secure precious ice time, Parker took Fidler, his prized lump of clay, and spent nearly two months molding him. “He was always roly-poly,” said Parker of Fidler, who was losing a pound a day in the first three weeks of camp. Parker kept his young center in perpetual motion by insisting that he be the first man in on the forecheck, to get the jump on opposing defensemen and arrive in ill humor. Once again, Fidler had no experience in that area.
“In high school, I would sit in the slot and pick off passes,” said Fidler. “Parker said, ‘If you’re in first, you’re in first.’ He taught you how to be a dog on the puck. That changed my whole game around.” Over the course of two months, Parker turned on the aggression switch on his budding star. “You would run Jackie [O’Callahan],” said Fidler. “You would run Lamby; you would run everybody like it was a live game.”
There was one defenseman who didn’t enjoy being run by the cock- sure freshman. “I remember him and Billy O’Neill getting at it in practice,” said Co-captain Durocher. “He had that Charlestown swagger, a cocky MO, and Billy wasn’t the easiest guy to play against. One would take exception to the other; they would yell and have their little battles.” Those little battles boiled over into fisticuffs.
“There were a lot of fights that year in practice,” said Fidler. “When you fought a guy, it was over, it was never brought back up. That’s what I liked about it.”
Parker had a handful of elite skill players that he would reward with power play minutes, guys like Silk and John Bethel. The rest were considered meat on the hoof, a daily test of aggression and will from young men whose testosterone was peaking. Violence was a natural by-product of the fierce competition.
“I’ve never been on a team that there were fights in practice, said MacLeod. “Parker would let it go a little bit, you got your shots in, and then he would always have some players stop it. Guys just wanted to play.”
But hockey is a two-sided coin: force and finesse; will and skill. So Parker designed a drill that would challenge his attackers to find creativity under extreme duress. He had the forwards take on defensemen one-on-one from the far blue line, 150 feet of ice. Forwards would line up on one side of the ice, defensemen on the other. He would call players names randomly for this mano-a-mano contest; after each attempt, the winning side would howl in victory. Fidler, despite being a self- proclaimed “great stickhandler,” struggled with this drill: too much time and space. “I would start talking to myself all the way down.”
Dave Silk, on the other hand, enjoyed the challenge and started making the defensemen look bad with his toe-drag, sleight of hand mastery with the puck. So Parker made it twice as hard.
“No, no, I want another D out there,” bellowed Parker. “This is too easy, one-on-ones. Put another D out there.”
“As a freshman, you don’t say a word,” said Fidler. “You just watch, watch, watch.”
Parker shouted out, “Silky!” to the relief of Fidler and blew his whistle to start the drill once again.
And with Fidler’s jaw hanging open, Silk went the length of the ice, dangled through the two defensemen, and scored. “I could never blow by two D like that,” said Fidler. “I’d talk myself right out of a move. He’s just so good, he’d dangle both D and score, one out of four times.”
Fidler was afflicted with something he had not felt in years: hockey hero worship. This became a vital part of Fidler’s education as a hockey player. Having a teammate with better stick skills than himself, his favorite aspect of the game, humbled him. It drove him to be his best at all times. He would join Silk on BU’s devastating power play and become a force, the most dangerous sniper in the East. The arrogance he arrived with on Day One had been tamped down by Parker over the course of his first tortuous camp. And as promised, he got in better shape every practice. With the days counting down to the November 22 opener, Fidler had shed his baby fat and found himself, miraculously, in shape. His cockiness bubbled up once again, and once again Parker extinguished it.
Parker was skating alongside Fidler at the end of practice as training camp was in its final days. The freshman was feeling his oats because of his newfound power. “I would blow right by him,” said Fidler. “C’mon, is that all you got? I want another drill.” This from the guy who, five weeks prior, was a bowl of Jell-O at the end of practice. “Let’s do another drill, c’mon, will ya? You’re getting too light on these kids,” said Fidler, unable to contain himself.
“I was in great shape at the time. I had dropped over twenty pounds and felt phenomenal. So he would blow a whistle and he’d skate our ass off.”
“Mark wants to go another twenty minutes,” said Parker. And he pushed the team through another grueling test before they finally skated off.
“What the heck?” said Fidler. “You know I’m going to get hell in the locker room.”
“Don’t you ever do that again,” said Parker. “I’ll never do it again, I was just kidding around.” “Never again,” said Parker. The point was made and never forgotten. As opening day arrived for Boston University hockey on November
22, the metamorphosis of Mark Fidler was nearly complete: his five-foot-eight body reshaped, he was down to a lean 163 pounds. He had been transformed from a greedy goal getter to a hungry puck chaser; he had been separated from his neighbor and wingman Billy Cotter and was now in awe of new line mate Silk. Parker had done an exquisite job on this project.
Mark Fidler would go on to be the first BU player to lead the Terriers in scoring all four years. He arrived from the streets of Charlestown with the ten thousand hours of training that author Malcolm Gladwell insists are required to obtain genius. A conservative estimate would be that Fidler shot one hundred plastic orange balls per hour of street hockey, so he had literally red a million shots in preparation to his first game at BU.
Fidler did a final check of his cubicle in the moments before his NCAA debut: new laces in his plastic-shelled Lange skates, three freshly taped Christian Brothers sticks. (He would never have to purchase an- other hockey stick.) His family and a slew of Charlestown buddies were safely seated upstairs. All the details were in place. He could hear the raucous crowd in shiny Walter Brown Arena buzzing. He was about to step onto the ice where his brother Mike had brought glory to the Fidler clan.
“It was emotional for me,” said Fidler. “I remember my coming out of our locker room, which was probably one of the best locker rooms in the country. So glad I was able to play on that team, the best team I was ever on, at a place I always dreamed about being. It was phenomenal. I was crying from the locker room to the ice because I was so glad I made it. My very first game.”