August 16, 2011

From NEHJ: Bruins' Cup win may spur hockey renaissance

By Brion O'Connor

Forgive me if I didn’t take part in all the caterwauling that accompanied the Bruins during the 2010-11 regular season, with seemingly everyone lamenting the Hub’s 39-year Stanley Cup drought. 

When Bobby Orr, left, scored The Goal to clinch the Bruins' Stanley Cup in 1970, it spurred a hockey explosion throughout New England. Can the Bruins' current success spur a renaissance? (Getty)

When Bobby Orr, left, scored The Goal to clinch the Bruins' Stanley Cup in 1970, it spurred a hockey explosion throughout New England. Can the Bruins' current success spur a renaissance? (Getty)

See, my personal Cup drought stretched way back before I was born, in 1957. In 1972, when the Big Bad Bruins last hoisted Lord Stanley’s trophy, I was a 14-year-old eighth-grader living in upstate New Jersey. And the Bruins ripped my heart out.

Game 6 of the 1972 finals saw the Bruins come into Madison Square Garden with a 3-2 series lead over my beloved Rangers. The Rangers at the time hadn’t won the Cup since 1940 but were loaded with talent, including Eddie Giacomin in goal, the league’s second best defenseman in Brad Park, and the stellar Goal-A-Game line of Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert and Vic Hatfield. Still, they were no match for the mighty Bruins, who calmly waltzed into MSG and throttled the Rangers, 3-0, to take home their second championship in three years.

I quietly wept, curled up in my bed, the voice of Marv Albert counting down the last seconds of the game on the transistor radio pressed to my ear. The Bruins, admittedly, were downright scary. Who could have possibly predicted then that it would be almost 40 years before they would again be crowned Stanley Cup champions?

Two years later, in 1974, my family moved to Manchester, N.H., and I was transported to some kind of hockey utopia. Southern New Hampshire, like much of Greater Boston, was reveling in the success of Bobby Orr’s Bruins. I got my first glimpse of the celebrated bumper sticker, “Jesus saves, but Esposito scores on the rebound.” Rinks, both indoors and out, were plentiful, making it easy for a carpetbagger like me to get assimilated into the region’s hockey culture. Little did I, or Bruins fans, or New England hockey players in general, understand just what a magical snapshot those days were.

Shortly after the start of the 1975 season, the Bruins made it easy for me to switch allegiances, trading for two of my favorite Rangers, Ratelle and Park, while shipping Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais off to Broadway. I gladly jumped on the Bruins’ bandwagon, worshiping at the altar of Channel 38 and high priests of hockey Fred Cusick and John Pierson. And the team began its wandering odyssey, with a handful of trips to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1977, 1978, 1988 and 1990, but no victory tour. Park never got his name on the Cup. Neither did Ratelle nor Rick “Nifty” Middleton nor Terry O’Reilly nor Gilles Gilbert nor Cam Neely nor Joe Thornton (not yet, anyway).

So complete was my conversion to the Black and Gold that I couldn’t even take some small measure of satisfaction in the Rangers’ 1994 Cup win, one of the greatest playoff runs ever. Same for Bruins great Ray Bourque raising the Cup as a member of the Colorado Avalanche in 2001.

Of late, life has been even more difficult for diehard Bruins fans.

Carolina’s Scott Walker’s overtime tally abruptly ending the 2009 campaign, and the stunning implosion against Philadelphia in 2010 had the Bruins faithful reeling much like Red Sox fans after the Yankees’ Bucky Dent went yard in 1978, or the Mets’ Mookie Wilson’s squibber snuck under Bill Buckner’s glove in 1986.

Then, with one glorious — albeit nail-biting (three Game 7s!) — run through the 2011 playoffs, the bearded Bruins were again champions of the hockey universe, parading around Vancouver’s home rink with the Stanley Cup aloft over their heads.

It was a cathartic moment for thousands of Northeast hockey fans who call the Bruins their own. All of which begs the question:

Will the Bruins’ Stanley Cup crown usher a return to hockey’s glory days in New England?

*   *   *

The short answer is, probably not. At least not to the same extent. The game caught lightning in a bottle in the early 1970s. The economy was healthy, and the Bruins — led by the preternatural Orr and other supremely talented players such as Esposito, Gerry Cheevers and Derek Sanderson — captured the imaginations of fans young and old throughout an entire region. Percolating enthusiasm hit critical mass, and the game’s popularity exploded.

Today, the landscape has changed irrevocably. The evidence can be found in the TD Garden, with its pyrotechnics and high-def Jumbotron, ear-splitting soundtracks and those all-essential luxury boxes. It is a far cry from the old Boston Garden. Consider this: an eight-ounce Budweiser today costs about the same as a ticket for a regular-season balcony seat at the old Garden ($7 for the latter).

Here’s another hint. Check out the Bruins popping open expensive bottles of French champagne during their victory celebrations. What a waste of quality bubbly! In 1972, cheap beer wasn’t just good enough for the champion Bruins, it was preferred. And I won’t even start on the player salaries.

Still, the fans have returned in full force. Everyone loves a winner. The true fans never really left, but many of them did go into hibernation. In a city where the undercurrent of hockey runs likes a riptide, Boston’s celebration was a heartfelt outpouring of emotion, as healing as it was exuberant. And it was genuine.

“The Bruins were huge for us,” Boston bar owner Jimmy Statires said. “I can compare it to what we got three years ago with the Celtics, but this got a bigger buzz.

“The Bruins are definitely the talk of the town right now, and until another one of our teams wins a championship, it’s going to be that way,” he said. “The big thing with these guys is that they’re easier to relate to than a Boston Celtic or a New England Patriot, because they just seem like guy’s guys. They’re around town. They’re not the big shots, not talking to people. They’re out having fun with people.”

Statires co-owns two establishments that couldn’t offer better locations for a Bruins’ Cup party — J.A. Stats Restaurant and Tavern in Boston’s financial district and Stats Bar & Grille in South Boston. Late in the playoffs, both places were “wall-to-wall,” he said.

“It wasn’t just guys, either. I remember looking around the place during the Stanley Cup finals, and half the people in here were women in Bruins jerseys,” Statires said. “Plus, it’s a different crowd (compared to the average Red Sox or Celtic follower). I would look at the Bruins fans as more hard-core fans.”

The Bruins’ victory parade also was a fairly accurate indicator of where the city’s allegiances lie. Most estimates put the crowd at between 1 million and 1.5 million, dwarfed only by the Red Sox’ World Series rolling rally in 2004. Need more proof? According to NEHJ Bruins beat writer Jesse Connolly, the Bruins’ annual development camp last month, which is little more than a dry run for minor leaguers and draft picks, drew big numbers.

“The weekday events had pretty large crowds, but it was so packed on the weekend days that they turned some people away at the door for fear of being over capacity,” Connolly reported. “Very vibrant, knowledgeable crowd, but plenty of young kids mixed in, too.”

Plus, the Bruins themselves are enjoying the fruits of their championship labors. They’ve confirmed that they’ve sold 12,000 season tickets for next year, with a waiting list (at a cost of $100 per seat). That, my friends, underscores some serious commitment.

*   *   *

How does all of that fanfare translate to the region’s hockey ethos, and the growth of the game? There’s little likelihood of another boom of “Bobby Orr rinks,” given the current economic climate, and the dozens of 1970s era rinks that went bust. “The land costs alone are prohibitive, if you want to be inside Metro Boston,” said Larry Abbott, owner of Hockey Town USA in Saugus, Mass.

On Boston’s North Shore — in the footprint of my daughter Brynne’s Agawam Youth Hockey program — there are numerous skeletons that speak about the Bobby Orr rinks like some archaeological dig. We lost twin rinks on Route 114 in Danvers, twin rinks off Route 128 in Beverly, and a single-sheet rink on Route 22 in Essex.

“A lot of people in the ’70s didn’t have access to ice,” Abbott said. “Prior to the Bruins winning the Cup (in 1970), there were a limited number of rinks around. Now there’s probably an over-saturation of rinks.”

Abbott’s family was ahead of the curve, converting an old Melrose bus barn into the original Hockey Town in 1965. That sheet proved so popular that the Abbotts added a smaller, second rink in the basement (which is still famous among locals for the four massive support beams that transformed the basement sheet into an unforgiving obstacle course). Despite the beams, though, the sheet sold out, a sure sign of hockey’s burgeoning popularity in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

In 1972, the Abbotts built the three-rink Hockey Town USA complex on Route 1 South in Saugus. They had plenty of company by that time. With Orr and the Bruins making annual challenges for NHL supremacy, and local hockey numbers skyrocketing, the number of rinks mushroomed.

“In those days, we were going around the clock,” Abbott said.
Even then, though, there were signs of cracks in that perfect facade. Soon after the Route 1 Hockey Town opened, the oil embargo hit, and the Abbotts converted a third, elevated ice sheet into a street hockey venue.

“The cost of energy skyrocketed,” Abbott said. “The state built something like 19 rinks, and there was a whole bunch of new private rinks. It took about 10, 12 years to shake out, and most of those private guys went out of business.”

Moreover, Abbott questions just how hungry today’s players are, noting there’s still plenty of ice available. The catch, he says, is that it’s not prime-time ice.

“Here’s the problem. Everybody says there’s no ice because they can’t get it when they want it, which means they can’t find practice time between 5 o’clock and 9 o’clock, Monday through Friday. That’s four hours,” he said. “Back in the ’60s, when we got into this business, they were skating around the clock. And when they said they couldn’t find ice then, they literally couldn’t find ice. There might have been an hour between 3 and 4 in the morning.

“But now, most of these rinks are wide open after 10, 11 o’clock” at night, Abbott said. “And they’re wide open in the offseason. There’s still a surplus of hours.”

For many communities, public dollars are the only hope for bringing a new rink on board, though municipal and state funding typically dampens enthusiasm of private investors in the same market, and is dependent on the whims of the Legislature. Another option is to have a wealthy benefactor build a new facility (a popular prep school approach) or a private owner bailing out a floundering facility.

“You can’t be the first owner,” said Peter Ferriero of Essex, Mass., who runs the successful Top Gun program out of his twin-sheet IceCenter in Salem, N.H., and is father of current San Jose Shark Benn Ferriero. “You have to be the second or third owner.”

*   *   *

Still, the rink question is only one part of the equation. What about the players? Not just the numbers but the quality. As Kirk Luedeke noted in his coverage of the 2011 NHL draft in the July issue of New England Hockey Journal, not a single New England player was tabbed until the third round (Connecticut’s Mike Paliotta, with the 70th pick).

“You’re seeing a bit of a down cycle, but the next few years could be different” one New England-based NHL scout told Luedeke. “Of course, the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup could provide minor hockey a nice boost, but that impact won’t be felt for some time.”

So, can the Bruins 2011 championship spur a renaissance for the game itself, on par with the four Boston University kids who famously helped propel the USA to miracle gold at the 1980 Olympics, and NHL stars such as Tony Amonte (Hingham, Mass.), Brian Leetch (Cheshire, Conn.), Jeremy Roenick (Marshfield, Mass.) and Tom Barrasso (Stow, Mass.)?

Absolutely. Of course, it’s still far too early to tell if there will be any lasting bump from the Stanley Cup run. But in the short term, local hockey officials are confident that numbers will increase, and quickly.

“I think it’s going to grow the sport dramatically,” said Keri Allen, the new president of Massachusetts Hockey and chair of the affiliate’s Player Development Committee. “We always see an increase after an Olympic year, and our U-8 registrations increased more than 250. With the Bruins’ Stanley Cup win, we expect to match that or exceed that number.

“We might be a small state, but we have a large number of hockey players,” added Allen, noting that Massachusetts currently has more than 45,000 USA Hockey-registered players, from adults to youngsters.

Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of membership development, and a Belmont, Mass., native, agrees with Allen’s assessment.

“This should provide another boost to hockey in Massachusetts and New England,” he said. “I mean, Mass. and New England have been producing elite-level players for a long time. They have huge participation numbers in all those states, because hockey is ingrained. It’s tradition.

“This will hopefully bring in more people from outside of hockey that look at the sport and say, ‘Maybe we should get our kid in that,’” Kelleher said. “I think you’ll see another boost in participation capturing those people who may not have gotten their kids into hockey in the past but got excited by the Bruins run and excited by the sport.”

Even better, Kelleher said, is that the Bruins are “set up and positioned perfectly to take advantage of this from the youth hockey participation side” with numerous outreach programs.

“We track the growth of the game at the entry level, the 8-and-under participation levels,” he said. “We won’t know the impact of the Bruins until April of 2012, when we finish up all of their registrations. But when we went to April of 2011, we saw the No. 1 growth in 8-and-under participation in USA Hockey was in Illinois. It’s no coincidence that followed the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup win.”

Providing further evidence that youth hockey programs follow the lead of the NHL, Kelleher acknowledged that USA Hockey player registration dipped significantly during the lockout season of 2004-05, and the following season as well.

Not only was the city of Chicago starving for a Cup, Kelleher said, but the team also was “totally positioned to impact the market at the grassroots, learn-to-play type level.” That formula included team-sponsored programs and partnerships with area rinks.

“Basically, all the stars aligned,” Kelleher said. “We see no reason it won’t be similar in an even bigger part of the country, all over New England. Not only Massachusetts, but you also have New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut … at least the right side of Connecticut.”

Like the Blackhawks, the Bruins have positioned themselves for a hockey boom because “they’ve been working on these sorts of grassroots initiatives,” Kelleher said. “When a Stanley Cup championship happens, it pushes everything over the top.”

For example, the Bruins have partnered with Facility Management Corporation, or FMC, which manages a number of former state rinks, to offer free G.O.A.L. (Get Out And Learn) skating and hockey instructional programs for first-time participants.

“For those of us from Massachusetts, we know that the programs have been established forever,” Kelleher said. “Typically, if Dad or Mom played hockey, they’re going to bring their child to play hockey. But we have a lot of families that didn’t grow up with hockey, even in and around Boston and New England, which we definitely think of as a hockey hotbed.”

Likewise, the Bruins are also involved with One Goal, a joint venture between the NHL, USA Hockey and its affiliates, and a number of industry leaders that are looking at ways to grow the sport by providing equipment and opportunities to skate.

“We have to have programs that make it efficient cost-wise and efficient time-wise for people to get in,” Kelleher said. “You can’t jump into a five-night-a-week program and expect a family to be enthused about that if they don’t know what it is. You get them involved in hockey, let them see that their kid’s having a good time and good experience, and that translates into a lifelong participants.

“One of the big things we’re doing, and I hope it lengthens the bump from the Bruins winning the Stanley Cup, is a national Try Hockey for Free Day on Nov. 5, partnering with all the NHL clubs through this OneGoal organization,” he said. “Obviously, by then, the Bruins are back playing. There’s more media at that point, there’s more TV, and people are saying, ‘We couldn’t do it in September or October, but now it’s November, and we have another chance to try it.’ And they’re more excited, because they’re all still riding that high of the Bruins.”

Even Abbott, who is less than enthusiastic about the prospects for private rink owners, says the Bruins’ Cup run should be a boon for the sport in New England.

“It’s gotta help, because there’s more interest, so it might bring the marginal person who wasn’t thinking of it before to start watching the game,” he said. “Of course, when they start watching it, the kids start watching it, and maybe they get a little more excited about and decide that it’s something they want to do.”

*   *   *

New England hockey retailers are banking on it.

“We see the Bruins’ success as being important to the game of hockey in New England,” said David Nectow, owner of Pure Hockey, a primarily New England-based retailer. “While we don’t foresee people running to open more rinks — like what happened in the 1970s — we do believe that a whole new group of kids will want to participate in the game both on ice and via street hockey.

“We’ve talked about this a lot internally, and the consensus is that we will see some level of growth in the coming years, but it’s so hard to quantify and prepare for,” Nectow said. “We operate our business fairly conservatively, and while we won’t rely on a tremendous influx of new players, we would love to see that happen.”

Essentially, hockey retailers see the Bruins’ championship run as a watershed event, one they want to make sure they can both promote and leverage. Most recognize that hockey’s rising cost has pushed the sport beyond the reach of many families.

“We continue to work with external partners to identify ways to grow interest in the game at the youth hockey level,” Nectow said. “In addition, we do all that we can to ensure that kids who want to play the game but can’t afford to are given the opportunity.”

Much like the Bruins themselves, manufacturers and retailers are exploring partnerships, and new products, to build on the team’s success, and make sure it translates to all fans.

“My personal feeling is that we’ll see a bump in August and September, when people start gearing up again for the season,” said Pure Hockey’s Jeff Copetas. “Marketing-wise, we are planning on rolling out some starter packages, which encompass, head to toe, what you need to get started in the game. We have a partnership with FMC, and their Learn to Skate program.

“But this is really the first year that we’re going to sink our teeth into the starter package, and it’s really going to be an amazing price, to accommodate what we think will be a pretty good number of kids coming into hockey.”

*   *   *

Will the Bruins repeat? That’s a great question. My guess is that the current club has the parts in place to at least make another run or two.

As of now, though, I’m not worrying about it. I’m going to savor this championship. I might even watch the finals again, which I dutifully recorded on the family DVR. And I’m going to watch them with my daughter, a second-year Pee-Wee and bruising right wing for her co-ed Agawam squad.

My allegiance to the Bruins isn’t predicated on championships, though I root for them in my own way (I’m more of a Herb Brooks, fist-pump-beneath-the-stands kind of guy). I’m a fan, especially now that Neely has infused a certain edge to the squad, but I don’t live and die with the team’s fortunes. Overall, the only thing the Bruins have to do to maintain my loyalty is the play like they care, like they understand and respect what the game means to us.

I enjoy the pro game, but my heart lies with the youth programs. If bringing the Stanley Cup back to Boston means the Bruins have supplied hockey at all levels with a much-needed shot in the arm, I’m good with that. Does it mean that Boston has reclaimed the title of Hockey Town? I honestly don’t know. Heck, I’ve always thought it as a great hockey town, and a hockey town to its core. I just want to see my daughter, and more kids at every age level, get the chance to learn all the lessons this great game has to teach.

If a few of them make it to the elite college level, or even the National Hockey League, well that’s just a bonus. But it sure would be fun to see a homegrown kid hoisting the Lord Stanley’s Cup while wearing the Black & Gold, wouldn’t it?

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Brion O’Connor can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com