Between the UMass Lowell River Hawks skating and blasting their way into college hockey’s Frozen Four in Pittsburgh this spring and now the surging Bruins, one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three years, our region is in prime condition for a spell of hockey mania not seen since the middle years of Bobby Orr’s reign in Boston.
The Topps trading card company started making hockey cards like the one above the year I was born, 1954, trying to fill in the seasonal market until their annual offering of baseball cards appeared like tulips in the spring. In the early years, hockey cards included text in English and French on the reverse, but by the time I picked up my first pack in 1968 (see example of Orr above) the words were in English only. The year before, the National Hockey League doubled its size, adding six teams in the United States: St. Louis Blues, California (later Oakland) Seals, Minnesota North Stars, Los Angeles Kings, and two teams in Pennsylvania, the Flyers in Philadelphia and Penguins in Pittsburgh. That was also the year that Bruins’ games began to be telecast on WSBK-TV, Channel 38, one of the new quirky UHF channels in the Boston area. When Bobby Orr-fever hit the area big-time in the 1969-1970 season, sports fans had to have a silver hoop antenna that screwed onto the back of a TV in order to pick up the games. My family’s TV was an older model, so I’d cross our back yard at about 7 p.m. on game nights to watch the Bruins on my grandfather’s new color TV next door. (My father’s parents had bought the house right next door when we moved to Dracut in 1956; my mother was not thrilled, but it came in handy for me.)
The UHF antennae preceded hockey skates. In our neck of the woods, the first generation of hockey wannabes wore black figure skates with toe picks on the front of the blades. That’s what boys wore in those days. It was a rare kid who had hockey skates, and if he did they were probably his father’s skates from the 1930s. Everybody had figure skates until 1969—another cultural change credited to Bobby the Magnificent. Ponds and brooks gave us our rinks, and as we trekked to the skating places we had in one hand a hockey stick and in the other a snow shovel. It was kind of amazing to shovel the pond on a Saturday morning after a night of snow. The black ice gleamed underneath, embedded with small bubbles, “the last words of fish before the cold snap” (I stole that last part from myself from a poem I wrote in 1976). I got nicknamed “Mike Walton” for my resemblance to a center on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Eventually, we graduated to playing indoors on very rare occasions at the Billerica Forum or Nashua Garden. A bunch of guys would scrape together $75 and rent an hour of ice at one o’clock in the morning. Everything was pick-up and rag-tag, but we enjoyed the hell out of it.
This is all to say hockey is back.
2 Responses to Hockey Talk
Thanks for the reminders… The switch to WSBK was so frustrating for those without UHF-capable sets–my grandfather refused to buy a new TV for years after that just to spite them. (Which drove me CRAZY whenever the B’s would play a Sunday afternoon game and we had to be visiting, though Bob Wilson and the play-by-play would always be on the radio).
Orr did indeed cause the instantaneous evaporation of all boys figure skates from my neighborhood, and virtually overnight in ’66-’67. I never lacked for hockey skates from that point on. (I was third on the hand-me-down list for skates in my family, and always had a “new” pair waiting for me every season as my older brothers grew out of theirs). My mother was the only one in my family who stuck with hers, and we would complain bitterly how the toe picks would chop up the pond ice where we wanted to be playing hockey. (No pads, no gloves, and absolutely no lifting). When the ice thinned in the spring, we’d play street hockey every day until the next winter.
Hard not to be a big fan of the Bruins back in those halcyon Bobby Orr day… we truly bought our first color TV because it made following the puck so much easier!