March 8, 2009

THE DEEP HOLD WIDENS:

Hockey Town: It's been almost 40 years since the Bruins had the city excited like this. Despite the drought, youth hockey has not just survived here, it's thrived. Now, with girls joining boys and the B's resurgence, the ice has never been hotter. (Charles P. Pierce, March 8, 2009, Boston Globe)

Massachusetts has 285 high schools playing boys' hockey, more than any other state, including hockey-silly Minnesota, and there is no college football or basketball event that rivals the annual Beanpot Tournament for Harvard, Northeastern, Boston College, and Boston University. Nevertheless, for much of the past decade, hockey thrived outside of the spotlight. The Bruins scuffled around the edges of the NHL playoffs a few times, and then faded from view. Hockey's hold on the city was deep, but largely invisible.

Now, after a decade in which the Patriots, the Celtics, even the Red Sox have won championships, the Bruins have a chance to step up and do the same, but to do so knowing that there remains a reservoir of support here that exists in few other places in the country. In Boston, there are Red Sox fans, but baseball doesn't permeate the city. Little League diamonds go vacant all summer, and the high school and college seasons are necessarily truncated by the weather. The Patriots and Celtics have experienced great waves of popularity, but there is no deeper culture of football and basketball present here, the best efforts of Boston College notwithstanding. In the other three major sports in Boston, there is a spectator culture of interest at the top, and very little beneath that. For all the ribbing hockey takes on sports-talk radio, for all the easy dismissals of it as a kind of charming local anachronism, like the swan boats or Jack Williams, people seem surprised to notice, again, that hockey, even after the Bruins all but vanished for nearly 40 years, still holds a place in this city and this region that football, basketball -- yes, even baseball, which is more than just the Red Sox -- can only envy.

The Bruins are back in first place. There is hockey in the air again in Boston, the way there was when Bobby Orr was lighting up the Garden, but the Garden is gone, and the city has changed, the old icy divisions melted now by time and demographics. In 1970, when Orr and the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since 1941, 641,071 people lived in Boston, 524,588 of whom were listed as being white on that year's Census, in which 140,685 were listed as "Negro," and "Hispanic" numbers were unreliable. Almost 40 years later, Census estimates reveal a much more energetic melting pot, with 338,514 respondents listed as white, and another 234,963 as Hispanic or African-American. It is a different city that suddenly finds hockey back on its radar this year.

Bruce Holloway grew up in a more parochial city, divided by race and class and the perpetually barbed intertwining of the two. He was not altogether welcome in many of the neighborhoods in which hockey was most deeply entrenched, the ones where the Boston Bruins of Phil Esposito and the great Bobby Orr were idolized there in the middle of their run in the early 1970s, where the basketball courts got hijacked in the summer for street-hockey games. At home, in the Lenox Street projects, Holloway found it hard to get a game of any kind. But he did the best that he could.

"I became a fanatic for it," Holloway explains. "In the summertime, I'd don my hockey equipment and get real sticks and real pucks and leave them out in the development where I lived on Lenox Street, and kids would come along and shoot pucks at me. They'd say, well, this is a little weird, but it's kind of fun to shoot pucks at this kid. So we established some street hockey games in the summer, me and my friends."

Holloway began SCORE Boston in 1996, when the National Hockey League, in an ungainly scramble to regain credibility after a labor dispute shut the entire league down for the 1994-95 season, launched an effort to start hockey programs in the inner cities of the United States. The league contacted Holloway, who'd been doing something like this on his own for several years.

"When I was coming up, hockey was big in Charles-town, in Hyde Park, in West Roxbury, Southie, but there never was a real focus in Roxbury," he says. "Now, we've had children from Dorchester of Chinese descent, Vietnamese descent. We've built ourselves a good melting pot here."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 8, 2009 6:58 AM
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