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.