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AMATEUR HOCKEY, CANADIAN vis a vis U.S.

THE AURA OF CANADIAN HOCKEY IN BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

I grew up west of Boston in Belmont where in the '40's my brother and I loved to listen to broadcasts of hockey games in French from Canada. It was a challenge to follow the action but the excitement was always there. Hockey to us had an 'exotic' connection to the north of us. Innocently perhaps, we envied kids living where hockey was king.

To be a hockey player in the Boston area in those days was a mark of distinction and entry into a not very large 'brotherhood' of buddies. We relished the sacrifices as marks to distinguish us from 'hothouse' athletes who played in controlled environment gynasiums. We virtually never played under ideal or consistent conditions. Adjusting to ice conditions, poor lighting, cold, wind or bright sun reflecting off white snow were an integral part of 'our' sport.

Professional teams enjoyed, of course, much better on ice conditions but their travel was frequently dangerous and tedius. Todays fans have never seen a snow covered train pull into the North Station in Boston to which the Garden was attached, running late with one of the 'old six-team' league teams.

Taking the commuter train into Boston when heavy snow was still being shoveled and ploughed from the tracks was an adventure. Dashing up rampways, over turnstiles into the Garden to see men on foot with 'rubber pushees' finishing surfacing the ice for the first 'skate' was 'real action'. There was no 'virtual reality' involved. If one waited around the train terminal, one might recognize players. Or more often the big trunks of equipment marked with the team name and colors. There were the pre game announcements of delayed starts, that 'the equipment' was late arriving. Later stories would come out about borrowing equipment from the home team. There was also a 'reserve' put on the in house skate sharpening shop for the late arriving visiting team. As a rink rat at the Boston Arena I knew when that shop was idle and would get 'an edge' put on my skates.

SPONSORED AMATEURS.... HUH???
For a few months in 1999 I participated in some hockey discussion lists and found the "hockey history list" to be the only sane one. All the others were screaming me-me nutcases comparing players in a game of which they clearly knew either nothing or just 'enough' to be totally 'off base'.

The history list was too 'statistics' oriented for me but some interesting discussions came up and some astute observers participated. I was flabbergasted by the question put to me on what kind of development programs existed in eastern Massachusetts to develop the likes of the Cleary's and other U.S. Hall of Famers or Olympic stars.

One motivation for these pages, beginning with one on pond hockey in Belmont, is to prove there were no 'development' programs, other than 'you got the desire, you want to play hockey, then get innovative' and above all, do it mostly 'lone wolf', joining groups of mutually self motivated guys at various 'venues'.

Specifically the Cleary brothers come to mind. I first played hockey with them at the flooded field next to the Underwood Pool in Belmont. I believe their dad dropped them off since we were about 12 years old. They 'stood out' since they wore hockey uniforms and were dressed for hockey when they arrived. I can recall playing until dark when too much 'snow' (scrapings) on the ice forced us to stop. I would say their 'development' program was their dad who refereed high school games in Boston. I never heard they were on some team in a minor hockey 'elite development' program since I am quite sure no organized minor hockey existed in the area in those years. The second time I played with them was at the open air rink at the Belmont Hill School which they attended. Again it was 'organized by us'. The Regan twins were there and one end of the ice was watery so we 'scrimmaged' at the other end until the ice was unsafe.

Another big name in Massachusetts hockey with whom I grew up playing on ponds was James "Skippy" Vigliorolo. His 'development program' was to walk half a mile or more to one of the ponds and play as long as it was light. His dad managed a farm and was not free to enroll his boys in 'elite' camps and drive around the state, waiting, watching and politiking amongst the organizers. He did, however, hire some kids from 'our bunch' to work on the farm during harvest time.

During ice times it was not unusual to see boys carrying hockey gear on the vast network of buses, trains and trolleys serving the suburbs. However if the available sheet of ice was small, such as a golf course pond, the guys would try to avoid attracting attention so they would have 'the ice' to themselves for at least part of the day.

Besides the development programs question,  the term, sponsored amateur came up. Until I discussed amateur hockey registration with Canadians in Southern California I had never even thought of sponsored amateur. The guys in my age bracket, that is born 1928-1935 and from Ontario had grown up with the concept of becoming a card signing sponsored amateur. From what I recall from talking and hearing these guys discuss their early careers, one's decision to sign a card, meaning a team's amateur hockey registration card was a major determinant in what opportunities one might have in hockey. Apparently that was the locked in for life period where once signed with an NHL sponsored ameteur team at age 10, you were the property of that NHL team. The guys from the OHA (Ontario Hockey Association) were astounded that we had NO organized hockey leagues pre high school age for kids around Boston and we did it all ourselves.

This explained to me why many Canadian parents were worried when we asked them to sign AHAUS (Amateur Hockey Association of the U.S.) registration cards which obligated them only for one season to the amateur club designated on the card. Even then, if there was no team for them or they moved or simply could not stand the coach offered, they could apply for a release, most of which were readily granted.

Since the dues were $10 a month and we were always seeking sponsors and planning side events to raise money for expenses, it was obvious the amateur club was not 'owned' by some professional team. However, many 'ex Canadians' served as 'deputy' scouts in Southern California. There many links to professional and top Canadian junior coaches which enabled several of our boys to tryouts and a few to professional careers. Perhaps some would like to add to this 'history'. I know some names and their connections but without their permission will not write about it.

I was amazed to learn that some of the Ontario raised fathers had never paid a dime for any of their equipment or ice time since they were Squirt age.

THE VAST GAP IN FACILITIES
In 1966 I compared our growing up years available ice time with MacDouball, a fellow Mites coach who had grown up in Sarnia, Ontario. We both went home and drew up lists from memory by year and month of available ice time, indoors and out. They were almost the same except for a dilapidated building in Sarnia with a some 'assisted' ice refrigeration which although primitive and very cold was used extensively under heavy demand for minor hockey.

If we Belmont area hockey kids had such a building situated on public transportation, centrally located west of Boston it would also have been heavily used and we would not have been necessary to spend so much time walking miles to remote ponds in the woods, on golf courses or flooded tennis courts. Almost certainly some older players like Paul D. "Pokey" Hanson or Jimmie Nestor in the 'swamp' of Belmont would have organized some sort of 'peewee' leagues.

In the '40's and 50's, within the Boston area serviced by public transporation there were  three artificial ice surfaces, Boston Garden, Boston Arena and Boston Skating Club. There were no known sponsors. Schools had tight budgets and all of them rented those three rinks, the Skating Club operating 24 hours a day. The indoor, artificial ice North Shore Sports Center was on the edge of Lynn and Swampscott and there probably was another 'outlying' artificial surface at some private school which I can't recall at this time.

Over my life I believe I am reasonably familiar with the conditions which delayed recognition and development of natural U.S. born hockey players From what I gathered in 1998-99 there are over reactions to correct that. Initially I was shocked to see kids soccer coaches openly paid 'living wage' salaries. However that may well be necessary based on my experience and the number of inexperienced but well meaning coaches involved. This absurd 'egalitarianism' being forced by our decaying criminal empire will damage if not destroy kids sports. I don't want to waste space even discussing such absurdities as a 'girls' team inducted into the Massachusetts Hockey Hall of Fame while 'icons' of Massachusetts hockey remain unrecognized.

Another question which came up on the Hockey History list has never been answered to my knowledge. Who put up money for amateurs going to 'world' games in Europe or the Olympic tryouts and games in the '40's to '60's?

If any large Boston area company sponsored the players or team I never heard a clue about it.  Whereas in Los Angeles a Hughes Corporation amateur team carried their banner from the '30's to the early '70's. I have one of their programs. Their 'home' was the Culver City rink, not far from Hughes plants.  They had a somewhat 'open' hockey time at 11 pm on Thursdays in the early '70's and I joined them a few times.

I assume the high schools paid rent to the Boston Garden and Arena for high school round robins on Saturdays. However the Garden or Arena may have granted them some favorable rate. The Garden had a basketball floor they mounted over the ice so the high schools could play on a day when the Celtics were scheduled.

The private schools led development since most had enough acreage to build their own outdoor rinks and the schools had long running hockey rivalries, plus endowments from alumni. A few high schools had their own natural ice outdoor rinks although at this writing I can't recall which ones.

High school association rules forbid practices until AFTER football ended on Thanksgiving. Many of we non football hockey guys had been playing outdoors for a few weeks at that time and taking in public skating sessions since September.

Even when U.S. amateurs did develop into NHL calibre players they were 'passed over' for reasons Bill Underwood stated well in an email on the Hockeyhistory list. Edited as follows:
"From: Bill Underwood 

"The excuses always were: 1- They played under amateur rules in the US that restricted checking in the offensive zone, etc. 2- They didn't play top level junior. 3. Probably an unstated third rule was that the Bruins didn't want to pay a local kid because if he ever became a star... he'd ask for a mint later on! And they'd also have to pay a bigger bill to keep other teams out. Curiously enough, the Montreal Canadiens were the first club to really reach into Boston in the modern era when they took Larry Pleau and Bobby Sheehan up to play junior. But still, it took an awful long time for anybody to be taken up there. You always have to wonder if the B's might have done a lot more a lot earlier had they bothered to sign at least a few guys from their own backyard! It's true that the boom in Boston really hit in the Orr era, but still, there were some great names from the 40's and 50's that were definitely short changed!"

THE 'IMAGE' INFLUENCE
As I read posts to the hockey history list of the game in the 40's-60's it came back very clearly to me that when I watched even the pros (before TV) my focus was COMPLETELY, totally, on why is he out there on that ice with a big name and will I be there later?

If a young star joined the Bruins, someone only a few years older than us, we could appreciate his speed and skills. But it was obvious that he wasn't that far ahead if we had steady indoor practices and games. At 14-16 we were not sure of this but we held that idea in our minds.

By the 60's when we coached and played with Canadians who had made the minors and some the top pro ranks we realized we DID have the talent and the desire but not the facilities and learned the game virtually WITHOUT a designated coach.

I am convinced that is what motivated the fathers in building minor hockey in the U.S. in the '60's. I resent very strongly that it was because of Bobby Orr, or Bobby Clarke, blah blah blah. If that is the only reason then you wouldn't be producing hockey TEAM players, but star emulators, empty headed showoff fools, hothouse copycats.

The fathers of that era had a host of stars to inspire them into what they wanted to be on the ice. Until I started to stretch out in my sophmore year I admired the scooters who cut in on the net with great speed in the modus of Yvan Cournoyer. As a 6 footer I had very few to emulate since I was not a stand up biff bang defensemen, the standard for my growing up years. I admired the all around forwards whose stats were very likely plusses, backchecking, making plays, always conscious and alert to what was going on all over the ice. At this moment I can't think of the names I admired but few were headliners.

Proof of having had the basic skill and desire was being told more than once by guys who made the National Hockey League or played top level minor pro hockey that they were amazed at the degree of improvement I accomplished after age 35 and 18 years off the ice.

Until Gretsky came along very few hockey heroes had the class of the guys of my generation. The turning point was about 1968 as in everything else, the TV destructive factor. Bullying thugs were touted as stars with barely a whisper that they used absolutely rotten tactics. Anyone coaching kids when Bobby "always carried his stick high" Clarke was touted as a role model could see kids emulating this slug on the ice and even worse some talentless nothings emulated his goon enforcer wings.  A roller derby attitude prevailed amongst the fans whose sports IQ's sunk lower and lower until NO ONE of my generation went to more than a few pro games on the West Coast.

There are many other examples but very few can accept the fact that Bobby Orr's style for example caused many emulators spoiling team play, who had not even, comparably within their peers,  half his speed or maneuverability, took the puck up on showboat rushes when they should have made plays. They were too dumb to note Orr flew past his forwards whereas they, as slow in foot as mind, had forwards waiting at the attacking zone blue line for "Mr. Big Stuff" to finish his egocentric, rush. These nitwits got the idea that was hockey.

EAST versus WEST in Canada
Regarding Canadian unity, few 'Americans' (yanks, that is) have a grasp on the disparity from east to west in Canada. I have no doubt that in my era a 'yank' with administrative ability in organizing minor hockey in Southern California enjoyed a wider acceptance with Canadian parents than say one from Montreal. The same rivalries were more obvious in senior hockey where I noted that New England raised players had a natural affinity for eastern Canadians. Some teams were almost exclusively western Canadians. We had one which was largely from New Westminster, B.C.

Quebec emigres to California had an exlusive hockey association at one rink in the early '60's. We managed to 'integrate' the minor association but the senior team stayed together for years.

SCHOLASTIC ATHLETIC PROGRAMS, SPORTS WORST ENEMY
The school monopoly of sports has been traditionally 'the American Way'. In Anaheim in the '70's-80's, non-school associations dominated baseball and soccer through high school, football through junior high and of course did not compete with hockey associations.

I don't know the degree of shift from high school dominance of hockey to non school hockey leagues in eastern Massachusetts. I do note that whereas in my day the three big high school hockey leagues played in Boston Garden or Arena with full press coverage, today every town has a neaby rink for it's high school practices and games. The glamour of being somewhat unique and distinctive within the region has obviously been diminished.


Copyright, Joseph P. Nix, 1999-2013

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