December 2, 2009

Pioneer spirit celebrated at induction

by Andrew Merritt

Ben Smith and Karyn Bye (photo: Getty)

BOSTON – It was hard not to feel a pioneering spirit Tuesday night on Boston’s waterfront during the induction of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame’s Class of 2009.

An icing call away from Boston Harbor, former NHL stars John LeClair, Tony Amonte and Tom Barrasso were enshrined along with the 1998 U.S. Olympic women’s team and Frank Zamboni, inventor of the iconic ice resurfacing machines now found at nearly every arena across the globe.

It was a night for firsts, and it was the U.S. Hall’s first-ever induction ceremony on the East Coast. It also celebrated a group of hockey luminaries who had hands in some of the most memorable and cherished aspects of the American game, all pioneers in some way.

LeClair and Amonte were among the earliest Americans to make a path to the NHL viable for U.S. players, and that trail was blazed even before them by Barrasso, the first American goaltender to jump straight from high school to the NHL.

“Tom Barrasso was a guy who made the NHL seem possible for Massachusetts players,” Amonte said during his induction speech. “He was the first and last goalie who ever stepped right into the NHL from high school hockey. You’ll never see that again.”

The site of the induction ceremony itself was meaningful, as the evening celebrated some of New England’s contributions to hockey. The three male players inducted are among the preeminent names in New England hockey, with Amonte (Hingham, Mass.) and Barrasso (Stow, Mass.) representing the Bay State, and LeClair, a St. Albans, Vt., native, bringing a Green Mountain flavor to the proceedings.

The 1998 U.S. women’s team was also a group of pioneers, winning gold in the very first Olympic women’s hockey tournament and sparking dreams in young female hockey players from Bangor to Bakersfield.

That team included a cache of New Englanders as well, with Massachusetts natives Colleen Coyne (East Falmouth), Vicki Movsessian (Lexington), Laurie Baker (Concord), Sandra Whyte (Saugus), A.J. Mleczko (Nantucket) and coaches Ben Smith (Gloucester, Mass.) and Tom Mutch (Canton, Mass.). They were joined by Rhode Islander Sara DeCosta (Warwick); Katie King (Salem), Tara Mounsey (Concord) and Tricia Dunn (Derry) from New Hampshire; and Connecticut natives Gretchen Ulion (Marlborough) and Sue Merz (Greenwich).

“You go into rinks now, and you’re just as likely to see a boys team on the ice as you are to see a girls team, and you see all these women playing hockey,” said Karyn Bye, No. 6 on the 1998 team and also an assistant captain. “What hits me is that girls will come up to me, whether they know me or not, and they’ll tell me, ‘Hey, I’m wearing number six this year,’ and you think, ‘Wow! Girls are trying to get my hockey number.’”

Finally, there was Frank Zamboni’s son, Richard, there to accept on behalf of his late father the U.S. Hall’s recognition of perhaps the most important technology ever to grace a hockey rink.

Beneath it all, there was also an Olympic theme to the ceremony. Amonte, LeClair and Barrasso all earned silver medals with Team USA in the 2002 Olympics, and of course the 1998 women’s team provided one of the most memorable runs in the history of U.S. hockey on the international stage. Zamboni invented his game-changing machine in 1949, but it was in 1960 that it hit the big time when Zamboni designed six of his machines specifically for use at the Squaw Valley Olympic Games.

And it was at those games, on the ice made perfect by Zamboni’s machines, that American hockey saw its first miracle, when the American men took the gold medal, going undefeated and beating Czechoslovakia 9-4 early one February morning to clinch the Olympic title.

So it was appropriate that in addition to the inductees, the 1960 U.S. men’s Olympic team was honored just shy of the 50th anniversary of its unheralded – but unforgettable – gold medal run at Squaw Valley. That team’s coach, the lively Medford, Mass., native Jack Riley, was joined at the ceremony by several players from the team including Bill Cleary, a Cambridge, Mass., native and member of what is arguably the first family of New England hockey.

Thirty-eight years later, another pioneering group of Americans made a statement about their nation’s place in the world of international hockey – this time in the burgeoning women’s game. The magnitude of that 1998 team’s effect on women’s hockey is hard to measure, though Smith, who along with Bye accepted the induction on behalf of the team, said in his speech that he got a glimpse of it one day shortly after he returned from the games.

“I was sitting in Matthews Arena on a Sunday, the first Sunday in March 1998, and it was 8 o’clock in the morning, and the Massachusetts girls high school championship was being played. The game was about done, and I was sitting behind one of the pillars there.

“A girl was sitting a few rows in front of me started walking toward me, and she had a USA hockey jersey on. She approached me, and I said, ‘What position do you play?’ She said, ‘I’m a forward.’

“She walked by, and I couldn’t wait to see if the back of her jersey had a number 6 (Bye’s number), or maybe a (Cammi) Granato inscription on the back. But she walked by, and she had four numbers on her back: 2012. I said to myself, ‘Somebody’s got a dream,’ and that dream does continue.”

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.