Walking down St. Boltoph Street in Boston's South End, the modern brick entryway to Northeastern University's hall of hockey seems pretty nondescript. But if you look closer, you can see the lavish remnants of the olden days when the edifice was the home of New England professional hockey.
And boy, the Boston Bruins first home, then called the Boston Arena, was beautiful.
Twin columns bolstered the facade, over fifty feet high and decorated with sculptures of fair maidens. An ornately decorated archway was topped with a dazzling sunburst, emblazoned with the arena's name linked the towers. In pictures, patrons are shown streaming in underneath a grand awning, under a marquee describing the event of the day and the doors led into a stately Victorian lobby that awed many with its colorful, intricate woodwork.
Renamed "Matthews Arena," for NU benefactors George and Hope Matthews, at 97 years-old the grand dame of St. Botolph Street is the oldest indoor rink in the entire world and it's hard to overstate the role the arena played in the growth of the Boston Bruins and the game of hockey in the United States.
Widely considered the 'dean' of New England Sports Information Directors, Jack Grinold has been at Northeastern since 1962. He was named Associate Athletic Director in 1977, just two years before Massachusetts Governor Edward King awarded the urban university stewardship of the arena. He is the unofficial historian for the building.
"You would have worked five or six days a week," said Grinold of the Arena's patrons back in 1910. "After all that hard work, when you got the money to go out, (you) wanted to feel that this was your castle -- that this was your special day."
Obviously, having an office in the Arena, everyday is special to the veteran NU staffer and Grinold readily speaks about the arena in proud, reverential tones. And why not? He played prep school basketball at Boston Arena in the 1950, fondly recalls seeing NBA games at the old house for just 25-cents and has called the building his home away from home for decades.
Grinold explained that the Black & Gold, the NHL's first American entry, came along at the height of the Roaring Twenties and were a feature attraction for the grand building. Starting with a 2-1 defeat of the Montreal Maroons on Dec. 1, 1924, New England hockey fans would flock to the Arena to see the new team.
|The Legendary Eddie Shore |
Stars such as Sprague Cleghorn, Jimmy "Sailor" Herberts, Carson "Shovel Shot" Cooper and a young defenseman from Fort Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan named Eddie Shore would give the fans something to cheer about as the Bruins grew.
And they would pack the place.
So much so, in fact, that the popularity of the B's and other attractions necessitated the addition of another level of seating, rounding the Arena into its now familiar two-deck form. But back in those days, there were no fire-marshal codes that limited the number of hockey-loving patrons.
"They just sold tickets until no one could get in the door!" says Grinold.
Professional hockey proved so popular in Boston that owner Charles Adams was forced to move the Bruins into a new, larger home -- the Boston Garden. But in the team's last season in the Arena, 1926-27, the B's made the Stanley Cup finals, losing to the original Ottawa Senators.
Despite the loss of the B's, the Boston Arena thrived, and was a perfect complement to the larger, more famed, Garden. And it has never ceased to facilitate the development of the Hub of Hockey.
For example, not only did the Bruins get their start on St. Botolph St., but the WHA's New England Whalers also played part of their first season at the Arena. They made their debut in 1972, split their home games between the Garden and the Arena, and took home the inaugural Avco Cup Championship that year under their captain, and former Bruin, "Terrible" Teddy Green and under the direction of former BU head coach Jack Kelley.
Of course, that franchise later moved to Hartford, merged with the NHL, and are now known as the Carolina Hurricanes -- the 2006 Stanley Cup Champions.
"One-fifteenth of the NHL comes from here," says Grinold of the Bruins and Hurricanes. "Not a bad fact."
|The Boston Cubs |
In addition to professional hockey -- it also hosted other pro squads like the Olympics, Tigers and Cubs -- the building was home to every level of the amateur ice-bound game.
The list of colleges that began their hockey programs in the arena is amazing: Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern and Tufts. To boot, two of college hockey's premier leagues, the ECAC and Hockey East, saw their genesis within the Arena -- as did the Beanpot Tournament, which actually began as a holiday hockey showdown played in 1952 before switching to its traditional February format.
The Arena also proved vital to the growth of countless local high school and community programs and even a young Red Sox lefty named Babe Ruth used to play pickup hockey there in the baseball off season.
For sure, the Arena has been home to myriad special hockey events and occasions, but perhaps the most memorable hockey game came a decade before the Bruins even took the ice. In January 1914, Harvard hosted the great Hobey Baker and his Princeton University squad in a game versus the upstart Harvard Crimson. But Baker, the first American hockey superstar and the man who would eventually have the award for the top U.S. collegiate player dedicated in his name, wasn't the person who would eventually decide this special contest.
In one of the longest collegiate games of all time, and for three periods and two overtimes, the Crimson and the Tigers battled in front of a ravenous Arena crowd. That is, until the 103rd minute, when a scarcely used reserve named Leverett Saltonstall jumped on the ice.
"In hockey, you only played seven men at that time," recounted Grinold, "and he's the eighth
|College Hockey, 2005 |
"But Saltonstall broke through the Princeton line to score the winning goal for Harvard, to the wild adulation of the fans, and the shock of the sporting world."
Saltonstall would go on to become one of the most famous politicians of his day and eventually held the governorship of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and served more than three terms in the U.S. Senate. He would become "one of Massachusetts' most sainted people" according to Grinold. But for the length of his distinguished career, he was known to often retell the story of how Harvard beat Princeton and the great Hobey Baker thanks to his surprising overtime goal.
Today, the beautiful, unique quality of a hockey game at the Arena is the intimacy of the experience and there is no doubt that most patrons still recount their visits there fondly.
The upper balcony that circles the arena is so close to the playing surface, fans feel as if they are right on top of the ice. And Matthews Arena itself is so small that you can hear everything, but when there are 3,000 people inside for a Northeastern game you'd be lucky to hear yourself think.
And it used to be even more intense.
"I was in the building when there have been easily eleven-some-odd-thousand people in here," said Grinold. "I mean there were people everywhere, everywhere…It was rather unbelievable."
Grinold cites ease of movement and the excellent views as reasons he, and most fans, enjoy modern arenas, but he recalls the days of those small, cramped barns with a smile.
|College Basketball, 2005 |
"When you scored a goal in the Beanpot in the old Garden," he said, "you had the fans going, and then the band would be just one second behind the fans.
"It would be just electric."
And, much like its successor on Causeway Street, the Boston Arena was known for far more than just thrilling hockey.
It was the first home of the Boston Celtics (est. 1946), hosted boxing, track meets (some starring the great Finnish distance runner, Paavo Nurmi) and figure skating exhibitions with the magical Sonja Henie.
As a gathering place, the Boston Arena served a vital role in the Hub. Heroes of the day such as Amelia Earhart, Charles "Lucky" Lindberg, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. Douglas MacArthur took center stage to the delight of audiences.
"Before television, it was a little difficult to become intimate with famous celebrities," says Grinold. "So if there was a famous, famous person who had just done something immense, like Lucky Lindberg, he would tour the country and appear at buildings like this.
"And you'd take your kids and say 'You're gonna see Lucky Lindy today!'"
And of course, what true Boston social institution would lack a rich political presence?
To reach voters, every president from William Howard Taft through Richard Nixon appeared there, as well as all the great local politicians like John Kennedy, Saltonstall and 'Hizzoner' John Michael Curley.
|Matthews Arena, 2006 |
"The building just served tons and tons of purposes for the community," explained Grinold.
And today, as it nears a century of use, the Arena continues to serve the students of Northeastern and the people of New England. Despite the plain brick façade, that same lavish archway that has welcomed fans for a century invites you to walk through the original lobby taking in the history as you go.
Matthews Arena, the first home of the Boston Bruins, is a treasure and a landmark not only for local hockey fans, but for those who harbor an appreciation for sport and culture as well.