Sunday, June 26, 2011

Personal column: Summing up one man’s impact

Want to know what the air will feel like around Boston University when Jack Parker ultimately hangs up his whistle? (And that will happen at some point, as inconceivable as it is.)

I would suggest you consult anybody at my alma mater on that. They must have a spot-on idea right now.

Over this past weekend, John Sumner officially retired after precisely four decades in various capacities at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep, an academic and athletic powerhouse in southern Minnesota that has produced over a dozen NHLers among others illustrious alumni.

When I enrolled at Shattuck as a sophomore in late August 2004, Sumner offered me an immediate morsel of comfort that no one else could in that time and setting.

Like me, he was a New England native and devout Red Sox fan even after his life had since taken him the uncharted plains of the Midwest. In a most timely fashion, his presence gave me someone with whom to share my cathartic jubilation when the Sox carried out their Curse-cracking playoff run that same autumn.

Then again, who was I to be seeking such a thing? I only had to live through Grady Little and Aaron Boone before the Sox turned their historical tables. Sumner has that on top of a bittersweet blend complete with the Impossible Dream, Bucky Dent, and 1986.

In any case, Sumner’s superior seasoning as a sports enthusiast shows up all the more in the way he embraced and helped to revolutionize the culture of one Minnesota prep school.

As a multisport coach and athletic director, Sumner saw the hockey program expand from an average, one-team statewide competitor to a megalopolis of eight teams testing themselves on a national platform. Not long after that, he along with the rest of the administration approved proposals to mutate the SSM soccer program in a similar manner.

The long-term result, strictly in terms of hockey, was a sheet of ice (and now two sheets) fertile enough to attract and hone such rising stars as Ty Conklin, Zach Parise, Drew Stafford, Sidney Crosby, Jack Johnson, Jonathan Toews, Derek Stepan, Jocelyne Lamoureux, and Monique Lamoureux.

But that wasn’t exactly the way Sumner found it. Nor would it be for about two more decades.

Perhaps I should put this into context for those readers who are lifelong New England residents. Sumner’s tenure at SSM began 11 months before Bobby Orr won his second and final Stanley Cup with the Bruins. It began a full two years before the aforementioned Parker assumed the position of head hockey coach at BU and Providence College christened its new ice house, Schneider Arena.

Sumner himself was the master of ceremonies when SSM dedicated its new arena Oct. 14, 2005. He was just on the heels of relinquishing his protracted reign as the school’s athletic director (opting for a shuffle to alumni relations) and announcing his long-awaited return to coaching as an assistant on SSM’s top-level Bantam team.

That particular year, my second as an SSM student, was likewise revolutionary on my front. Having utilized my first full year to make an impression on the school’s compact community, I had just established myself as what some simply termed “the journalist of the school.”

I had not obtained permission to cover these elite athletic programs in a fashion not previously carried out by a student-journalist, as was my initial goal. Rather, I was outright invited to attend and write up as many events as I pleased and granted nearly unlimited access to players and coaches.

I will confess I was doing it chiefly for myself. I had to launch my career somehow, and I wanted my early projects and regimen to be as authentically professional as possible.

At the same time, though, Shattuck sports clearly craved publicity, and few people stressed that perpetual appetite as regularly and eagerly as Sumner did. Upon dusting off his whistle to join the Bantam coaching staff, he never hesitated to tip me about a noteworthy player or achievement on his team.

And unlike the Division I college or professional levels, a good, resourceful website is hard to find when covering youth sports. But Sumner knew when an ink-worthy team was coming to campus, and he never failed to offer me advanced notice.

Even if he hadn’t bothered to directly influence my coverage of the Shads and Saints, I would still be indebted to Sumner simply for the instrumental role he played in elevating the hockey program to its unique posture. An aspiring sports reporter could not ask for much better training grounds than what the news-making athletes and coaches produce at Shattuck. To say that they prepared me well for my subsequent gigs covering Providence College and Hockey East would be to trivialize the matter.

And lucky me, the breadth of SSM hockey alumni, all of whom appreciate Sumner’s influence as much as I do, continuously extends to New England. In turn, at any given time over the last four years, I was covering at least one alum on a regular basis, thus giving Sumner a reason to keep following my work.

I can only speak for myself, but knowing that a guy like Sumner continues to monitor the path I started on at Shattuck ought to hold the same sway on me that it does on all of the athletic alums. It motivates you to represent the institution he helped to foster from its humble origins.

It’s the least anybody can do to offer him a fun, fulfilling retirement, right?

Al Daniel can be reached at