By Justin Long
Tucked away in the corner of an office in Orr Rink is a trophy you’d think would be displayed for all recruits and visitors to see: Division III National Coach of the Year—Jack Arena.
The award is well deserved, a result of the 2011–12 men’s hockey season, which saw the Lord Jeffs finish with a program-best 24-4-1 record and advance to the Frozen Four for the first time ever. Not only did Arena decide against displaying the trophy in his office (it rests on the floor and leans against a filing cabinet), but he wanted to give it to his starting goaltender. “Having the best goalie in the country,” he says, “sure makes you seem like a good coach.”
Despite his sincere modesty, Arena has in fact been the driving force behind the Amherst hockey team’s rise to the national spotlight. Long before he was leading the Lord Jeffs as a coach, he was doing so as a player. As a standout forward in the early 1980s, he helped the program establish itself as a contender in New England. After a successful senior season, Arena won the Hobey Baker Award as the Division III Player of the Year. (That trophy sits in a box, buried under papers.)
Shortly after accepting Amherst’s Hitchcock Fellowship—a position granted to a graduating senior pursuing a career in coaching and teaching—in 1983, Arena was dealt an intriguing opportunity. When Amherst’s head men’s hockey coach suddenly departed that August, the school conducted a search for an interim coach. Arena was offered the job. “It wasn’t traditionally a strong hockey area, so they didn’t find anyone,” Arena says. “I didn’t know any better, so I said yes.”
Everything seemed to go right that first year. The hockey team got off to a 6-0 start, set a school record for wins (17) and advanced to the ECAC championship game. Less than one year removed from graduation, Arena appeared to be a natural. (“It was blind, dumb luck,” he’ll tell you.) But after Amherst went 15-8-1 in 1985, the next three seasons produced win totals of only 11, seven and five. “I realized that I really enjoyed the coaching piece,” he says, “but I had no idea how to recruit.”
Fortunately, he had mentors close by. While working with Amherst’s baseball and football teams, he soaked up lessons from two of the college’s most successful coaches, Bill Thurston and Jim Ostendarp. “I had a steeper learning curve than most coaches, but I watched how Thurston and The Darp dealt with team management and team dynamic. As a result, we started to build back up.”
Now entering his 30th season at the helm of one of Division III’s elite programs, Arena has changed the culture of Amherst hockey. When he was a player, his team’s most significant milestones were winning 15 games, beating Williams and qualifying for the postseason. Now, that seems like nothing: In the past five years he is 7-0 against the Ephs, has won two NESCAC titles and is an incredible 88-32-13. His total of 374 wins ranks ninth among active Division III coaches, and the team’s recent success indicates no slowing down.
Arena focuses on none of that. Sure, he’s competitive and has memories of packed crowds of the 1980s, underdog wins of the ’90s and championships of late, but his favorite moments have been van rides with the men’s golf team (which he also coaches) and meals with the hockey team.
Another favorite memory is from the 2008–09 hockey season. After Amherst beat Middlebury in the NESCAC finals, every member of his team huddled in the locker room, singing along to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Arena compares the scene to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team at the medal ceremonies. “To see a group so excited that they couldn’t get close enough to each other to celebrate, it was so cool,” he says. “Seeing them come together, care about each other and truly enjoy one another in the journey—that’s what it’s about.”
Moments like that one are the reason Arena hasn’t left Amherst (he has had opportunities), and they’re the reason it hasn’t felt like 30 years to him. “The job isn’t always easy, but it’s never work. My enthusiasm for the school is as strong as it was when I first set foot on campus—that says something about the place.”
Arena’s admiration of Amherst is only outweighed by the impression he has left on others. Gregg DiNardo ’01, who played hockey at Amherst and now serves as the team’s assistant coach, can’t go on a recruiting trip without someone saying, “Give my best to Jack.” Arena is respected by his peers (who have voted him NESCAC Coach of the Year three times), admired by his former players (who continue to invite him to their weddings) and seemingly liked by everyone (good luck finding someone who will say anything negative about him). “He’s a great hockey mind and a great teacher, but he’s a better person,” DiNardo says. “He’s one of the most outstanding people I’ve ever met.”
DiNardo says last season’s loss in the national semifinals was particularly tough, because so many people wanted to win for Arena. But even if Arena did get that championship ring, there’s a chance he wouldn’t wear it. It would probably remain in a box next to the trophies he’s gathered these past 30 years, symbols of a great coach focused on being a great human being.
This winter, Arena turns to a new chapter as his son, Patrick ’16, begins his Amherst career. Patrick has been accompanying his dad to Orr Rink since he was a toddler, but now he’s one of the hockey team’s promising forwards. “I’m looking forward to having him around,” the elder Arena says. “I know the people he’s going to be surrounded by, and I’m thrilled he’ll get to experience Amherst with them.” He pauses, smiles and puts aside his modesty, if only for a brief moment. “But he’s not nearly as good as I was.”
Long is Amherst’s former director of sports information.