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Curator: Winter Classic the 'Woodstock' of Hockey

by John McGourty /

"In Boston, hockey is the sport closest to everyone's heart. Everyone in New England is probably two degrees separation from knowing someone who played in college, the Beanpot, the pros and even the NHL." -- Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson is the curator of the Boston Sports Museum and the go-to guy for all things historical in Boston sports, so he is a good one to ask about the impact of the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic coming to Fenway Park Friday.

"This is like the Woodstock of hockey," Johnson said. "You could call it 'Icestock.' I put this in the category of a 'one-off,' things that happen once in a generation,"

Johnson and the museum are sited in the TD Garden, the 14-year old home of the Bruins that was built in the space adjacent to the old Boston Garden ("American hockey history traces its roots to this building where Eddie Shore skated.") and anchored at Boston's North Station train depot.

"It's important to understand this in context. Fenway Park is less than one mile from Matthews Arena, formerly the Boston Arena, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on Jan. 1, the same day as the Winter Classic. It was the original home of the Bruins and for a long time, the home of Boston-area high-school hockey, and now the rink for Northeastern University hockey. The Beanpot Tournament started there. It is the oldest ice-hockey arena surviving in the world."

Back in 1974, the Flyers, who take on the Bruins in the Classic on Friday, became the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup when they beat the Bruins in six games, finishing with a 1-0 shutout by Hall of Fame goalie Bernie Parent, a former Bruins netminder. That game is famous for Kate Smith singing "God Bless America," and Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito presenting her with roses.

The Flyers of that era were known as the "Broad Street Bullies" for their rough style of play. And they were built to be able to handle the Bruins, who were dubbed "The Big, Bad Bruins" when they won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.

Neither team emphasizes rough stuff these days. The Bruins take the eighth-fewest penalties and while the Flyers lead the league, a coaching change earlier this month was made to enforce team discipline. The Flyers have been winning recently by taking half as many penalties as before.

"It's going to be interesting what style they play on the 1st," Johnson said. "The Flyers cast themselves in the Broad Street Bullies image when they acquired Chris Pronger, in the mold of the 1970s teams coached by Fred Shero. But you need Bernie Parent to pull that off. Parent isn't walking out the door of that dressing room and Kate Smith won't be singing."

The Flyers roughed up Orr pretty good in 1974 and Johnson hasn't forgotten it. He also credits the Bruins' success in Boston for Philadelphia becoming one of the 1967 expansion teams.

"I didn't like those Flyers teams and what they did to Orr was a shame, like taking a hammer to the Pieta," he said. "Orr put food on the table of everyone in hockey. It's competition, but do it clean and proper, not a mugging.

"It is interesting that they chose the Flyers. (Flyers chairman) Ed Snider saw the success and appeal of the Bruins. In that era, we had the Celtics winning championships and the Bruins usually failing to make the playoffs, but the Celtics averaged 8,000 fans and the Bruins sold out the 13,909-seat Garden every game.

"In Boston, hockey is the sport closest to everyone's heart. Everyone in New England is probably two degrees separation from knowing someone who played in college, the Beanpot, the pros and even the NHL."

Johnson said you can trace the history of New England hockey back through many current prominent hockey names.

"Look at Bruins GM Peter Chiarellli. He was captain of Harvard in 1987, playing for coach Billy Cleary who played at Harvard for Cooney Weiland who won the Stanley Cup as a Bruins player in 1930 and 1939 and coached them to the Stanley Cup in 1941. Weiland played for Art Ross. That's going back to the roots of
the NHL.

"Robbie Ftorek coached the Bruins a few years back. Growing up in Needham, he was coached in youth hockey by Woody Dumart, who played on the Bruins' Kraut Line with Milt Schmidt and Bobby Bauer. Ted Donato, the Harvard coach, played for Cleary and later for the Bruins.

"It's amazing the roots and ripple effect of the game here in Boston and throughout the New England area. With all due respect to Detroit for calling itself 'Hockeytown,' this is the greatest hockey city in the United States. We're more comparable to Minnesota, dubbed 'the state of hockey.' Except, here in New England, we're the region of hockey.

"We have a very Canadian feel for the game, that intimacy," Johnson said. "We had the first intramural hockey league in the country, the Greater Boston League. The first intramural program in the country was at St. Paul's prep school in Concord, N.H., where Hobey Baker and Don Sweeney played. I remember my friends getting 3 a.m. ice times at local rinks and they were happy they got any ice time."

Johnson said that while Fenway Park holds only about 35,000 fans, he won't be the only one feeling the historical influences of those Bruins and New England hockey stars who have gone before.

"All the ghosts will be there on the 1st," Johnson said. "Milt Schmidt and Eddie Shore went to lots of Red Sox games at Fenway. Red Sox shortstop and later manager Johnny Pesky grew up in Oregon and was the stickboy for the Portland Winter Hawks as well as a darn good youth-hockey player. He used to practice with the Bruins in the 1940s.

"You know the Bruins will play hard because it's a social and ethical component of being a Bruins' player. If you're not busting your butt, there's something wrong with you, the fans say. Every generation there are guys who come along and really get it, like Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic. The tradition continues. Tim Thomas is a perfect example. Bruins' Stanley Cup goalies Tiny Thompson and Frankie Brimsek would be proud to shake his hand."
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