The Boston University Terriers made waves in the college hockey world without even making the NCAA Tournament. As first reported by ESPN’s John Buccigross, BU has made the decision to fire head coach Albie O’Connell. In a release, athletic director Drew Marochello noted that it was a “difficult decision” to move on from O’Connell, but cited the historic program’s “high expectations” for why a change was needed. This is the first time in nearly 50 years that BU has fired its head men’s hockey coach, following the legendary 40-year run of Jack Parker, who retired 2013, and the short, but successful run of David Quinn, who left for the New York Rangers in 2018.

In some ways, this is a surprising move for the Terriers. O’Connell, 45, has deep ties to the university. He was a four-year starter for the team from 1995 to 1999, during which time they finished first in the Hockey East regular-season standings. As a sophomore, O’Connell helped lead the team to a conference championship and a run to the National Championship Game. As a senior, he took on the role of captain and led the team in scoring. After a brief stint playing professionally, O’Connell got into coaching in 2002 and worked as an assistant at Niagara, Holy Cross, Merrimack, Northeastern and Harvard before returning to BU in 2014 under Quinn. When Quinn left for the NHL, O’Connell was promoted to head coach in a move that seemed obvious at the time. Yet, he was given only four seasons at the helm — two of which were impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic — before being shown the door. In that time, the Terriers appeared in the national rankings among the top 20 teams in the country 29 times, made an NCAA Tournament, and just this year won the coveted Beanpot title.

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However, in many other ways this move should come as no surprise at all. At Boston University, 29 top-20 appearances over 96 weekly rankings and one NCAA Tournament appearance is nothing to hang your hat on. The expectations for the team are much higher than that, especially as O’Connell has continued to use the Terrier name to recruit elite talent like Joel Farabee, Drew Commesso, Luke Tuch, transfer Jay O’Brien and a 2019 recruiting class that was arguably the best in college hockey with Trevor Zegras, Alex Vlasic, Robert Mastrosimone and this season’s leading scorer, Domenick Fensore. That talent was largely squandered as O’Connell’s squads lost in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs two out of three years, winning just one game total, and lost in the first round of their lone NCAA Tournament appearance. With his job on the line this season, O’Connell checked both boxes of what coaches want to avoid: He started slow, dropping out of the national rankings in Week 5, and he ended poorly, falling from No. 13 in Week 19 to back outside the rankings by the final week of the season. That season-ending slump combined with an early conference tournament exit cost BU any chance at an NCAA Tournament appearance this season and likely was the last straw for O’Connell, even though things were looking up midseason.

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The main reason that the decision to move on from O’Connell is not a shock is that BU planned in advance. The change was all but telegraphed this summer when the Terriers hired Jay Pandolfo as associate head coach. Pandolfo had been an assistant with the Boston Bruins but made the unorthodox decision to make a lateral move but to the collegiate level, a move that only made sense if there was a chance that Pandolfo could take over as head coach of his alma mater. After all, why else would a young assistant coaching for his hometown team and who had received NHL head-coaching consideration previously drop down to the NCAA? It seemed all but certain that Pandolfo was being groomed to replace O’Connell in the event that this season did not go as planned for the Terriers. That seems to be the case and while there has been no announcement of O’Connell’s successor, anyone but Pandolfo being named the next BU head coach would be much more stunning than the firing itself.

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As for O’Connell, the well-traveled coach will land on his feet. O’Connell was a decorated college player, has worked for six different Division I teams and still has moderate success as a head coach to lean on. O’Connell also found success in recruiting, a crucial part of coaching in the NCAA, even if the talent didn’t come together as hoped on the ice. Whether he finds a head-coaching job somewhere with lower expectations that perennial contention for a National Championship or signs on as an assistant for a top program, O’Connell should be back in college hockey in no time.

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