Hockey Town

It's been almost 40 years since the Bruins had the city excited like this. Despite the drought, youth hockey has not just survived here, it's thrived. Now, with girls joining boys and the B's resurgence, the ice has never been hotter.

By Charles P. Pierce
March 8, 2009
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The Ulin Rink in Milton is a relic of the old Metropolitan District Commission, which was widely recognized hereabouts as a kind of informal storage unit for the wastrel nephews of state senators. Tucked into a bend in a road at the base of the Blue Hills, the rink is like any other hockey rink early on a chilly morning in the dead midwinter. It's redolent of hockey's remarkable panoply of smells -- wet wool, sweat, plastic, and leather -- and the people huddled over their takeout coffee don't even seem to notice. Just the previous autumn, Sarah Palin, the Alaskan governor running as the Republican nominee for vice president, had made quite a show out of being a hockey mom. But hockey moms don't take the campaign credit card and run up a tab at Saks that would have choked Imelda Marcos. They're here, and at a thousand rinks besides, warming themselves, stamping their feet, cheering on their kids.

"Of course I'm a hockey mom," says Bridgette Wallace. "I had a jacket, too. It said 'Hockey Mama for Obama.' "

Wallace's daughter, Madison, is out on the ice, skating for a team representing SCORE Boston, a hockey program for urban youth. It's the brainchild of Bruce Holloway, a superintendent with the Boston Police Department who's been playing the game since the late 1960s, when a man named Al Kinnitt, working at the Hattie B. Cooper Community Center in Roxbury, came to his kids with an idea. "One day," Holloway recalls, "he said, 'We're going to play hockey.' We all said, 'Well, yeah, that's gonna happen.' " But Kinnitt somehow cobbled together equipment and got Holloway up on skates.

"I started watching the game, and I saw goalies and I thought that was a cool position, so I told him I wanted to be a goalie. He got me some equipment, and that was it. I've been a goalie ever since."

Bruce Holloway grew up in the only part of Boston untouched by hockey, which always has been sunk as deeply here as football is in Texas or basketball in Indiana. Youth leagues thrive. Massachusetts has 285 high schools playing boys' hockey, more than any other state, including hockey-silly Minnesota, and there is no college football or basketball event that rivals the annual Beanpot Tournament for Harvard, Northeastern, Boston College, and Boston University. Nevertheless, for much of the past decade, hockey thrived outside of the spotlight. The Bruins scuffled around the edges of the NHL playoffs a few times, and then faded from view. Hockey's hold on the city was deep, but largely invisible.

Now, after a decade in which the Patriots, the Celtics, even the Red Sox have won championships, the Bruins have a chance to step up and do the same, but to do so knowing that there remains a reservoir of support here that exists in few other places in the country. In Boston, there are Red Sox fans, but baseball doesn't permeate the city. Little League diamonds go vacant all summer, and the high school and college seasons are necessarily truncated by the weather. The Patriots and Celtics have experienced great waves of popularity, but there is no deeper culture of football and basketball present here, the best efforts of Boston College notwithstanding. In the other three major sports in Boston, there is a spectator culture of interest at the top, and very little beneath that. For all the ribbing hockey takes on sports-talk radio, for all the easy dismissals of it as a kind of charming local anachronism, like the swan boats or Jack Williams, people seem surprised to notice, again, that hockey, even after the Bruins all but vanished for nearly 40 years, still holds a place in this city and this region that football, basketball -- yes, even baseball, which is more than just the Red Sox -- can only envy.

The Bruins are back in first place. There is hockey in the air again in Boston, the way there was when Bobby Orr was lighting up the Garden, but the Garden is gone, and the city has changed, the old icy divisions melted now by time and demographics. In 1970, when Orr and the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since 1941, 641,071 people lived in Boston, 524,588 of whom were listed as being white on that year's Census, in which 140,685 were listed as "Negro," and "Hispanic" numbers were unreliable. Almost 40 years later, Census estimates reveal a much more energetic melting pot, with 338,514 respondents listed as white, and another 234,963 as Hispanic or African-American. It is a different city that suddenly finds hockey back on its radar this year.

Bruce Holloway grew up in a more parochial city, divided by race and class and the perpetually barbed intertwining of the two. He was not altogether welcome in many of the neighborhoods in which hockey was most deeply entrenched, the ones where the Boston Bruins of Phil Esposito and the great Bobby Orr were idolized there in the middle of their run in the early 1970s, where the basketball courts got hijacked in the summer for street-hockey games. At home, in the Lenox Street projects, Holloway found it hard to get a game of any kind. But he did the best that he could.

"I became a fanatic for it," Holloway explains. "In the summertime, I'd don my hockey equipment and get real sticks and real pucks and leave them out in the development where I lived on Lenox Street, and kids would come along and shoot pucks at me. They'd say, well, this is a little weird, but it's kind of fun to shoot pucks at this kid. So we established some street hockey games in the summer, me and my friends."

Holloway began SCORE Boston in 1996, when the National Hockey League, in an ungainly scramble to regain credibility after a labor dispute shut the entire league down for the 1994-95 season, launched an effort to start hockey programs in the inner cities of the United States. The league contacted Holloway, who'd been doing something like this on his own for several years.

"When I was coming up, hockey was big in Charles-town, in Hyde Park, in West Roxbury, Southie, but there never was a real focus in Roxbury," he says. "Now, we've had children from Dorchester of Chinese descent, Vietnamese descent. We've built ourselves a good melting pot here."

And that is how he came to be here at the Ulin Rink on Saturday morning, the sounds of the sport almost as vivid and immediate as its distinctive aromas. A whistle stops play, and Madison Wallace takes the ice again. She is smallish, but she is obviously more athletic than many of the players on the ice. She is quick with the puck, and when she rides a Milton player into the boards, her mother cheers. Madison plays for three teams -- her team at Southfield School in Brookline, another youth team in Dorchester, and for SCORE Boston. She practices for one team or another every day of the week. Her school team is the only one of the three that is not a mixed team. The scrimmage with the Milton team ends in something close to a tie -- they're not using the scoreboard today -- and Madison leaves the ice.

"Playing with boys," she says, "they can be a little rougher, a little more competitive, so that can help. But girls are just as good."

Popularity often is a top-down thing, but hockey is more intertwined in the culture here than it is in most cities. And as the city changes, hockey is changing with it. Not all at once, but a little at a time, its charms coming to the surface again after a long exile, and doing so in a different Boston. Bruce Holloway heard the music of the game and now Madison does, in one of the few places in the country that still hears it. It is hearing it with new ears, perhaps, but it still sounds the same. Leaning on her stick, smiling through the bars of her mask, Madison Wallace is the face of hockey, too.

"I know what this city has to offer a hockey player," says Cam Neely, the Bruins vice president who literally built a career and a life here after being traded from Vancouver in 1986 and who stands as the kind of living embodiment of the franchise the way that Jean Beliveau serves as the living embodiment of the Canadiens in Montreal. "In terms of the fan base I grew up with, a lot of them probably have kids of their own now, and they're probably playing hockey," Neely says. "But they probably were turned off a little down through the years, because the team wasn't successful."

The elevated trains are gone, so North Station is not the shadowy George V. Higgins kind of place it was back when the Bruins were last the biggest game in town. The old T stop is gone, replaced by a new pile of luxury lofts. In Sullivan's Tap, the doormen chat about the difference between Celtics fans, who are said to come in and nurse one beer for an hour, and the Bruins fans, who are said to come in and nurse nine beers for an hour. But Sully's is now surrounded. Canal Street has become an entertainment strip. The Fours is still next door, but there's also a place called Hurricane O'Reilly's, and another one called The Sports Grill Boston, which feature enough flat-screen televisions to induce a stroke at 50 paces, including tiny ones in the individual booths. It is what Mission Control at NASA would be if it were run by bookies.

The neighborhood is hopping on this night. The Bruins are playing the San Jose Sharks, the two teams with the best records in the National Hockey League.

For many years, but especially after the opening of what was first called the FleetCenter -- now the TD Banknorth Garden -- the Bruins seemed hopelessly stuck in the past. The team was badly run, and it was losing, which was worse. The team's view of its fan base seemed stuck in the 1970s -- a cigar-chomping guy in a black jacket, half in the wrapper before he walked in the door, banging on the glass, begging for a fight. There was an ungainly attempt to sell the old, raffish, shoes-stuck-to-the-floor ambience of the Boston Garden in a new building to a new audience. It didn't work, not least because hockey's demographics were changing beneath the sport, and the Bruins were one of the last teams to notice.

"This is still a great hockey market," explains Amy Latimer, the team's vice president of sales and marketing. "We just had to change the fan experience and make sure the building and the team were doing all they could to make this a good fan experience. I don't think that fan experience should supersede what happens on the ice, but at the end of the day, they're coming here to see what's on the ice. Some teams have the philosophy of 'If we can get them to look at the pretty things, they'll ignore the product.' We don't subscribe to that."

The Bruins, then, tried to thread a very tough needle. In the persona of their team, and in the characters of their players, the Bruins sought to maintain the "blue-collar" image that had sustained them through the previously flush periods of the early 1970s and late 1980s. However, the new management of the team -- general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien -- determined to find that attitude within skilled hockey players (Cam Neely being the prototype of this). The new Bruins are tough and diligent, but they have no goons the likes of Jay Miller or John Wensink, who served approximately the same function for the Bruins as Silvio Dante used to on The Sopranos, except that they were marginally better skaters. "We tell these guys at the beginning of the year, don't lose your identity," Chiarelli explains. "What got us here last year was work ethic. This year, we've added more skill. If you play hard and play with confidence, that creates space on the ice for your skills to flourish.

"I'd like to think we haven't maxed out yet, not in the sense of the pulse of the city. I know by our fans, by our TV ratings, and comments within the industry that what we're doing is working."

Nothing works on this night, though. San Jose comes in and squashes the Bruins, 5-2. "We played our game," sighs Marc Savard. "We just didn't play it for 40 minutes." Savard is as close as the team has to a star, a 5-foot-10 center who has learned, with no little effort, to harness his gifts with the puck to the two-way work ethic that Chiarelli argues is part of the essential identity of the team. That Savard is not yet the celebrity that, say, Big Baby Davis is, let alone Brady or Papi, is a measure of how far the Bruins still have to go. However, there is no question that the reservoir of fervor for hockey is still there, waiting to be tapped.

"It'd be nice," Savard admits. "When I got here [in 2006], the rink was never sold out, and you never saw much about the Bruins around town. Now, though, that we're playing well, you can start to see what Cam Neely told us it would be like around here if we started winning."

Surrounded now by all the bells and whistles of exclamatory modern "game presentation" -- The Ice Girls! The Kiss Cam! Nirvana, piped in between periods! -- the Bruins have managed to maintain much of their original charm in a radically new entertainment context. Within that context, you can see how hockey has changed at the other levels of the sport. And out in the rinks that still dot the region, many of them relics of the last golden era, you can see the biggest demographic change of them all.

The Valley Sports Arenas in Concord are among the many rinks that rose up during the Bobby Orr era. The first rink opened in 1971, and the second one a year later, when interest in the Bruins -- and in hockey -- was just peaking. In its early years, the complex passed through several owners, and a number of curious legal proceedings, before it was bought in 1975 by a group of seven people, one of whom was Carl Gray. He was an engineer at MIT's Draper Laboratories who traded in work on the Apollo program and experiments with the X-15 aircraft for running a state-of-the-art hockey facility out in the woods. As the years went by, Gray noticed that more and more girls were coming to the arenas, not for figure skating, but to play hockey. When the United States women's team won a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics, interest in girls' hockey exploded. Gray's Assabet Valley girls' program has won 36 national age-group championships, including three last year.

"We became quite diversified," says Gray. "All of a sudden, it wasn't just one thing anymore."

Over the past 15 years, the number of girls playing hockey in the United States has gone from a little bit under 200 to nearly 9,000. In 1992, Denese Kerrissey played for the boys' team at Newton North, the first girl to play in the boys' state tournament. Within a decade, there were 21 high schools offering girls' hockey in Massachusetts. Today, there are 92 public high school teams alone. Between them, Minnesota and Massachusetts account for 68 percent of the girls who play hockey in high school in the United States. There are now girls who will play hockey their entire lives, grow up, take their daughters to the rink on the cold mornings, and take them to the Bruins games, too. In a sport in which the unbridled macho id was never far from the surface, this has been a profound kind of change, and hockey is far and away ahead of the other three major sports in this regard. And the success of the Bruins is accelerating the interest in hockey again, the way it did almost 40 years ago, but it's doing so within a larger population.

"There was a lull three or four years ago," explains Greg Carter, who runs a thriving series of hockey schools based at the Valley arenas. "Now, though, my classes for younger kids -- ?5, 6, or 7 years old -- are huge, up 35 to 40 percent in the last year, boys and girls."

For years, there was a sense that hockey's appeal was limited to the neighborhoods of Boston where it always had been played, and to the suburbs to which the children of those neighborhoods moved. And if the fact that the granddaughters of those emigrants have now joined their grandsons on the ice means anything, it means that the old ways of thinking about the game's appeal are the real anachronism about hockey in Boston, a relic of a city that no longer exists, that has been broken down and rebuilt by new citizens and new ideas. Years ago, when Orr was the king of the town, the notion of girls playing, and thriving, in the sport would have seemed as fanciful as the idea that the Bruins would take to the ice, not to a cheesy organ rendition of "Par-ee," but to the stylings of the late Mr. Cobain. If the gender barrier can fall, it's hard to believe that hockey's appeal can't widen and deepen even further. This is, after all, the place for it, if anywhere is.

In January, the kids from SCORE Boston went to a Bruins game together. The succeeding practices were spirited events. Now, early on a chilly morning, at the old MDC rink in Milton, the best player on the ice takes a long reach with his stick, corrals the puck, and flies down the left wing, dipping in toward the middle just enough to get the goalie sliding the wrong way, and slips the puck past him near the left post. "He took to it right away," his mother says. "My husband and I are big supporters of the program. They teach the kids respect and dignity."

The best player on the ice is Patrick Champagnie. He's from Mattapan, attends Boston Latin, and has been playing since he was 7. He hears the same things from his friends in Mattapan that Bruce Holloway once heard from his friends in Roxbury, but less often. "They tease me, yeah," he says. "But they understand. I play football and basketball in the afternoon. Hockey's for the mornings, and the nights, too."

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