When the pee-wee hockey players poured onto the ice after the first period at the Tsongas Center last night, they looked like bees swarming the face-off circle. There must have been 12 on each side, which made it tough to eject the puck from the scrum that shifted from one blue line to the other. What a kick for the mites to be in the big house for even five minutes.
In section 105 with my old pal Russ from Maine, and his partner, Pam, we were neighbors to the bell-ringers in their home hockey jerseys. These are the stalwarts, the thick-and-thinnners, who let each new crew of River Hawks know that somebody up there in the stands loves them. This is a lean season, when you need that cow bell more than ever. Russ had been to the Tsongas once before several years ago when he traveled down on a bus from Bangor. He followed the Black Bears to Lowell because tickets are so hard to get at the UMaine arena. Last night there were a couple of buses parked along the traffic circle out front. He wasn’t a bus passenger this time because he’s been in Billerica for business for a few days. Russ said the Tsongas Center is a better venue for watching a hockey game than the Maine arena. He admired the recent improvements, but he did say he’d heard that people in Lowell were worried about UMass Lowell gobbling up too much local real estate. I said the complaints are coming from Dracut people.
I looked for Johnny “Pie” McKenzie on the mezz last night, but didn’t see him. Maybe I missed that his gig with our team is over. The first time I saw him at the Tsongas, I flashed back to the glory days of the Bruins of the 1970s. Taking up hockey seriously or at least giving it a try was mandatory in the Age of Orr, even if you started out wearing black figure skates. Soon enough if the fever took hold, you were down at Lull & Hartford’s picking out a CCM or Sherwood stick with just the right amount of curve in the blade. Then came the actual hockey skates and shin pads with hockey socks. Other uniform pieces came later, like padded short pants. This winter and the preponderance of ice brings back memories of pond hockey and trudging down the road or through woods to the pond after a snowfall with a hockey stick in one hand and a shovel over the other shoulder. Zambonies? Maybe at the Billerica Forum or Nashua Garden, when we could pool $75 for a rented hour at 11 p.m. Standard operations were outdoors after school, on weekends, and the winter vacation weeks in December and February, when you prayed the ice would be thick and smooth and clear of snow.