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The Verdict: Heat, trains and rats hallmarks of old Garden's ambiance

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
TD Garden carries on its predecessor's tradition of a "cozy" visiting dressing room (Photo by Dave Sandford / NHLI).

BOSTON—It is probably just as well that the visitors’ locker room is cramped, and not because the Blackhawks need a heightened sense of togetherness during this time of stress. Tiny is terrific preparation. When they attempt to tie the Stanley Cup Final in Game 4 at TD Garden Wednesday night, they surely will find the Boston Bruins in an intrusive mood again.

Shrinking the rink is part of their pedigree, especially at home. The Blackhawks like to skate and create in waves. The Bruins like to defend and check in layers. During Game 3 Monday night, the Blackhawks rarely moved without encountering at least one large, hairy man wearing black and gold.

Nothing will change. It never has. Even when the Bruins ruled with the explosive Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, they bumped and bruised to such an extent that opponents felt they were playing on a surface roughly equivalent to a frozen birdbath.

Although TD Garden is of a similar vintage as the United Center (born 1995), it borrowed certain housekeeping codes from the ancient Boston Garden, R.I.P. There, guest teams also found quirks in their quarters. Hayden Fry, the famed Iowa football coach, had Kinnick Stadium’s visiting locker room painted pink to suggest passivity.


Blackhawks Team Historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

Recent Articles from Bob Verdi:
> Dots: No panic for Blackhawks
> Fond memories for Orr, Esposito
> New history for old rivalry

In Boston Garden, it was about temperature. The Blackhawks always depended on cold showers in midwinter. For Red Auerbach, who belongs on the Mount Rushmore of coaches, and Blackhawks Senior Advisor to Hockey Operations Scotty Bowman, heat mattered. If you can’t beat them, broil them.

When the Celtics, co-tenants with the Bruins, met the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1984 National Basketball Association Finals, Boston was an oven. The Lakers barked that their locker room desperately needed an air conditioner. Auerbach obliged. When the Lakers showed up the next night, there was a brand new air conditioner. On the floor. In a box.

The big, bad Bruins of the 1970s were famously devoted to fun, as well as winning. After being eliminated from the playoffs in 1973, a chance at their third Stanley Cup blunted, they decided to have a postseason team party anyway. But Esposito was in the hospital, his leg wrapped in a cast after surgery to repair torn knee ligaments. Not to worry.

Two Bruins showed up at the hospital entrance to distract security officers while Orr and Wayne Cashman rushed to Esposito’s room, wheeled him out of the building and onto the street. When the caravan reached an intersection, Orr informed his fellow superstar that a signal would be necessary.

“We were taking a left, so Phil stuck his left arm out from under the sheets,” recalled Orr before the Bruins’ 2-0 victory Monday night. “Then, off to the bar.”

After the party, Esposito was returned to his room for a night’s sleep. Beneath his pillow, he found a $400 bill from the hospital to cover property damage. The Bruins were kings of Boston in those days, but even they had to follow some rules.

Boston Garden was a delightful dump, standing only eight inches from where TD Garden was built, also above North Station. Proximity to the tracks was such that trains could be heard arriving and departing. Fans were on top of the action, well positioned to excoriate referees thusly: “Hey, Ashley! We got a taahn named after you. Maaahblehead!!”

John Kiley, the organist, was a fixture, much as nine-fingered legend Al Melgard in Chicago Stadium. Melgard, however, never left his post. Kiley also performed for Celtics and the Red Sox at Fenway Park. But Kiley, as the story goes, did not enjoy watching sports as much as he delighted in playing cards.

Thus, when Orr was ejected late in a 1974 loss to the Blackhawks here, and irate spectators littered the ice with garbage, there is no record of Kiley making music during a lengthy delay while the arena was cleared and order restored. If John didn’t play all that much during games, he wasn’t going to be rousted by any Garden variety riot. Kiley did not milk his audiences for attention or hog the stage, either. He could bang out “The Star Spangled Banner” in 50 seconds.

The press box was so close to ice level, you could hear players spit. After a Blackhawks game at the Garden one bygone evening, I returned to the press box from the locker room to compose a story for the Chicago Tribune. While typing, I noticed a member of the building’s maintenance staff emerge below, firing a pistol into the stands.

I turned to Tom Fitzgerald, the outstanding hockey reporter for the Boston Globe.

“Tom?” I screeched. “What in the world is going on here?”

“Oh, nothing,” Fitzgerald replied. “The guy’s just shooting rats.”

I didn’t write well that evening, but I did write fast.

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