MANCHESTER, N.H. — Hockey in the city — hockey in any city — has changed profoundly in a generation.
No longer is the old barn the meeting place on Saturday nights. The ghosts that inhabit buildings like the JFK Coliseum downtown here have not translated to more bodies in the building in the present day.
No longer is hockey a must-play sport for non-affluent city families. More and more, the bigger participation numbers are coming from the suburbs.
That’s why it was so heartening to see some of those old echoes stirred up last winter, when two of the city’s three public high schools — Manchester Memorial and Manchester Central — crafted together great seasons and found themselves meeting for the Division 1 championship at the city’s new downtown jewel, the Verizon Wireless Arena.
“To be honest, I didn’t know that the city had never had a state final with two (city teams) playing against each other,” said Memorial coach Mark Putney, who played at the school in the mid-1970s. “Programs have been around since the ’60s. I found it hard to believe, but also realized how special that game was going to be.”
is located in Hillsborough County, about halfway between
Nashua and Concord on the Merrimack River.
Population 112,000 in 2012, making it the largest city in New Hampshire and northern New England.
Rinks in town The Verizon Wireless Arena, home of the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, located at 55 Elm St. St. Anselm College plays at the 10-year-old Sullivan Arena on campus. There is also the JFK Coliseum (303 Beech St.) and the West Side Arena (1 Electric St.).
Local legends Mike Flanagan and Steve Balboni are both natives of the city of Manchester who went on to play major league baseball. Former St. Louis Cardinals standout Chris Carpenter attended Trinity High School, as did big leaguers Mike LaValliere and Jeff Fulchino. Philadelphia Eagles (NFL) coach Chip Kelly and U.S. national soccer team player Charlie Davies also are city natives.
Sports history The Monarchs and New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Double-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays) are the city’s professional tenants.
Maybe nobody’s witnessed the evolution of hockey in the Queen City more than Hubie McDonough III, who these days serves as the director of hockey operations for the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, a franchise that has enjoyed great success at the box office since its inception in 2001.
McDonough grew up around the teams his father — Hubie McDonough Jr. — coached at Manchester Memorial. The older McDonough was one of the city’s hockey founding fathers, growing up playing at Dorr’s Pond and later the University of New Hampshire.
He skated for the old Manchester Beavers and Tam O’Shanters and was one of the architects of the Manchester Regional Youth Hockey Association in the 1960s, which would pay dividends a decade later.
His son, who would help Memorial win that 1978 state title as a freshman — the first time the champion didn’t come from the northern hotbeds of Berlin, Concord or Hanover — recalled the atmosphere at the JFK Coliseum during winter.
“The JFK was the place to be,” said McDonough. “You’d walk in there on a Saturday night, there’d be two high school games and the place was packed. As a kid, you strive for that. It was a lot of fun.”
Memorial’s title in 1978 kicked off a nice run for the city, with legendary coach Wally Tafe Jr. winning championships at Central (1980 and ’81) and Memorial (1989, ’91 and ’95). Trinity added titles in 1984, ’88 and 2011.
The amateur game was advanced by the Manchester Alpine Club (the Alpiners) and Manchester Blackhawks, who stormed into the New England Hockey League scene in the 1960s, led by players like aggressive forward Andre Prefontaine and sniper Ray Champagne.
“I probably never realized how wonderful it was back then,” said Champagne, who tied a New England record with 55 goals in 1970-71 and who still skates five times a week at age 68. “It just showed how much people were really interested in hockey. Whenever we played on weekends, it was sold out most of the time.”
McDonough went on to star at one of the city’s colleges — St. Anselm — where he won the small college Hobey Baker Award in 1985 and remains the school’s all-time leading scorer. That was the springboard for a 13-year pro career that saw him play in nearly 200 NHL games with the Los Angeles Kings, New York Islanders and San Jose Sharks.
|The Manchester Tam O’Shanters (seen here vs. the Manchester Alpiners) helped advance the amateur game. (Photo: New Hampshire Legends of Hockey)|
Back in his hometown working for the Monarchs, in a jewel of an arena that didn’t exist when he was a kid, he’s been involved running the hockey side of things, which has enjoyed amazing stability, with just two head coaches — Mark Morris and Bruce Boudreau, who’s gone on to great NHL success with the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks — and a pipeline that helped produce players on the Los Angeles Kings’ 2012 Stanley Cup champion team.
Despite famously feuding with Boudreau as their working relationship deteriorated, culminating with the coach’s 2005 firing — “I’m still mad at myself for shaking Hubie McDonough’s hand before exiting that meeting,” wrote Boudreau in his 2009 autobiography — McDonough has been part of one of the AHL’s best working relationships, now in its 12th year with the parent Kings.
At the box office, the Monarchs have been one of the league’s success stories, finishing at or near the top of the AHL through 2006-07, and still bringing in more than 5,000 people a night. That’s something that few people — McDonough included — wouldn’t have thought possible 20 years ago.
“Honestly, didn’t even think about it,” he said. “Now that I look back, it’s the perfect place. I played in the minors quite a bit and you could see that there were a lot of small cities that loved hockey.”
McDonough’s alma mater, St. Anselm, is the more successful of the two hockey-playing colleges in the city. Crosstown rival Southern New Hampshire University is the other, but those teams, though classified Division 3 and members of the ECAC East, are not allowed to compete for a conference or NCAA championship because the other sports at their schools are Division 2 and compete in the Northeast-10,
|Verizon Wireless Arena, home of the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs. (Photo by Steve Babineau)|
“I feel bad for the guys,” said St. A’s coach Ed Seney, who has a 160-117-26 record in 12 years at the school. “We’d make the (ECAC East) tournament every year and once you make it, anyone can win it.”
At the high school level, another all-Manchester final would be a longshot. It would certainly be hard to top the way last season ended, with Adam Tack’s overtime goal lifting Memorial past Central in a thriller at the Verizon.
“It was just phenomenal,” said Brian Stone, who is in his second year as the head coach at Central after spending three years as an assistant at Memorial. “You honestly couldn’t get a better setting.”
Memorial, Central and Trinity are all enjoying a good cycle of players, though not a ton of them. All three programs had tryout numbers in the 20s, a far cry from the deeper pools seen by programs like Pinkerton, Concord, Bishop Guertin and Exeter.
“It’s a cycle,” said Stone. “I can’t put a finger on it. I hope it’s the case that (hockey in Manchester) is coming back around. But I don’t know what it’s going to be next year.”
In Manchester, there’s always going to be a next year — along with the echoes from a lot of years prior.