Saying Goodbye to Uncle Jack

It’s been a difficult week for sports fans. In a matter of hours, we learned the tragic news about a boating accident which killed Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez. As well as the passing of Arnold Palmer, who was also known as “The King” of golf. Then things got personal, when I learned uncle Jack was gone.

John “Jack” Kirrane didn’t have the Twitter followers of Fernandez or a drink named after him like Arnie, but he was equally revered in USA Hockey circles and his historic hometown of Brookline, MA.

Kirrane passed away in his sleep last Sunday night at age 88. Hundreds of people gathered in Brookline to pay their respects last Wednesday.

1948 & 1960 Olympian

As a teenager, Kirrane represented his country in the 1948 Olympics as a defenseman for Team USA. In 1960, at age 31, he took an unpaid leave of absence from the Brookline Fire Department to serve as captain of Team USA. The team went on to win the first gold medal in USA Olympic hockey history.

As a defenseman, Kirrane was known for his fearless shot-blocking and toughness. He was a defensive defenseman.

That toughness was also confirmed years later when I met 1980 Team USA captain Mike Eruzione at a friend’s wedding. When I mentioned Jack was my uncle, Eruzione replied: “He’s one tough S.O.B.”

Kirrane was a modest and humble man. Yet, at the same time, he had a quiet presence about him. Or as Boston sports radio legend Eddie Andelman, also with Brookline ties, might say, he had “It”. Jack wasn’t a big talker, but when he spoke people listened.

Influence Equals Leadership

Leadership has often been defined by a single word. Influence. Kirrane influenced people throughout his life. In 1960, When Team USA coach Jack Riley made three late additions to the roster it created some tension in the locker room. Teammate Dick Rodenhiser recalled “Jack told the team that if he had to go to Squaw Valley alone, he’d do it,” Rodenhiser recalled. “That put everybody back on the same page.”

Influence. Talk about walking through a wall for someone. Kirrane worked for the Brookline Fire Department for parts of five decades. While paying respects to Kirrane’s family this week several members of the BFD spoke of Kirrane as a mentor. He retired as a Brookline Fire Department Lieutenant in 1990.

He also reunited with Olympic teammate Bill Cleary who coached Harvard university. Kirrane managed the rink at the Bright Center Arena for 15 years. It was at Harvard where Kirrane met a young defenseman named Don Sweeney and took him under his wing. Sweeney is the current general manager of the Boston Bruins.

In 2011 when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, Sweeney, who was the assistant general manager at the time, shared part of his day with the Cup, at Kirrane’s Brookline home. Speaking about the influence Kirrane had on his life, Sweeney said: “You go ahead and ask any of the Harvard hockey guys — male or female — and they’ll fill you in that Jack Kirrane was a big part of all of our lives.”

If the good Lord decides to have a World Cup of Hockey tournament in the heavens, he has the guy to anchor the blue line for Team USA. He might also remind opposing legends such as Canada’s Gordie Howe and Russia’s Valeri Kharlamov to keep their heads up.

Rest in peace uncle Jack. Deepest condolences to Susan, Jackie, Kristin and family.