Image Source: ESPN
Winter nights were always warm and cozy in our Brunswick, ME house, and hockey was integral.
By birth and geography I was a Boston Bruins fan, but I became a diehard thanks to the sheer brilliance of the era. I missed the Big Bad Bruins of the early 70s, with Bobby Orr, forward Phil Esposito and goalie Gerry “Cheesy” Cheevers, with his scars-and-stitches mask, but I fell in love with the Lunch Pail Bruins of the late 70s: hard-edged guys who played hard for 60 minutes like Cheevers, the ferocious enforcers Wayne Cashman and Terry “Taz” O’Reilly and the brilliant goal scorer Rick Middleton. This was hockey at its finest, and I caught it at an age when these things mean everything.
My dad was born in Bay Ridge Brooklyn in 1940. In addition to the Brooklyn Dodgers, he remains a passionate fan of the New York Mets and Rangers. By environment the Rangers became my second on-ice love, and I came to know them through radio and dad’s 1976-1977 yearbook. That team included Esposito (traded by Boston in a move that crushed all of New England, except my dad), the stately forward Rod Gilbert, defensemen Ron Greschner, goalie and future beloved TV fixture John “J.D.” Davidson and New York City’s own Nick Fotiu.
Dad had a silver GE transistor. The band and dials were on the front, and it had an army-fatigue green grill on top. On those magical Maine winter nights he would pull on his gray button-up sweater over his pajamas and tweak the dial until he got Marv Albert and Sal Messina in the Rangers booth on AM 1130, WNEW New York.
Bruins games were on TV38, WSBK Boston, with the great Fred Cusick on play-by-play and former Bruin Johnny Peirson on color. Home games were broadcast live from the old Boston Garden, home of the Bruins since 1928. They called it the Old Barn on Causeway Street, and it looked as cozy as grandma’s farmhouse. I would only catch one game at the old Garden before it closed in 1996, but it was as cozy and homey (and cramped and uncomfortable) as it looked on the tube.
These were the days before advertising permeated every available inch of surface, so the lines were clean and the pure white ice and boards really popped on our TV. And these were the days before helmets became mandatory, so you could really see the players in all their hockey mullet and walrus mustache glory. It was truly a magnificent time for the game, and for me to discover it.
Although I never learned to play (or skate, for that matter), my passion for hockey was born here. Things changed in the ‘90s, when the commissioner made a ridiculous push to bring the Canadian game to the Sun Belt: the Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars; the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche; the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricane; the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes. More teams were born in markets with no hockey passion (Atlanta, Nashville, Columbus, OH), and with the game diluted and spread so thin, my interest waned.
But the night of Tuesday, June 14, 1994, brought it all back and brought it all home. On that night my dad’s Rangers finally won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940. And we listened to it together.
I was 21 and pissed at the world, but nothing could get in the way of me and my dad and my radio. I tweaked the dial until I found Marv and Sal, those voices rising from deep in my DNA, together again. We listened together, and when Mark Messier held the puck in the corner for the final seconds and Madison Square Garden went ballistic on my boom box, we were together again for it. My dad stood up, stuck out his hand and said, “well, congratulations!” and went to bed. But I could see it all in his little smirk: the joy of finally winning in his lifetime and the perfection of our listening to it together on radio. I also saw those winter nights all those years earlier when he was tweaking the dial and I was happy just to have toys, a piece of toast and a hockey game with my dad.