Outside of Bruins-Canadiens, it doesn’t get any better than Mount St. Charles vs. Bishop Hendricken.
If a pond isn’t frozen, you’ll find a tennis court.
When the substitute teacher never showed up, you played eraser hockey with yardsticks in junior high school.
You sat behind the chicken wire at the old Rhode Island Auditorium.
You think “Slapshot” is the funniest movie ever.
You buy your pucks at Manny’s.
Back in the Stone Age, when I was a kid, the Big, Bad Bruins were the most popular sports team in New England. Our hockey roots don’t run as deep as Quebec’s, but only Minnesota and maybe Michigan match this region’s puck-loving intensity in the Star-Spangled 50. So on New Year’s Day, when the Fenway Park diamond went white, and the Boston Bruins beat the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime at the Winter Classic, a lot of Rhode Island was watching. Despite the close score, the game wasn’t a classic, but Mother Nature got the winter part right. It was played on crisp day sandwiched around a weekend of snow. Baseball and hockey, New England’s two most primal passions, morphed together into as pure a celebration of sport I’ve seen around here since Lonnie Paxton made snow angels and Patriots fans spontaneously erupted in synchronized snow-throwing during two of the previous decade’s football-with-a-blizzard-chaser games.
It wasn’t always like this around here. Back in the 1800s, while Canadians were busy refining the sport of hockey, New Englanders were the undisputed masters of a game called ice polo. According to the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica (published in 1911):
Ice Polo, a winter sport similar to Ice Hockey, is almost exclusively played in the New England states. A rubber-covered ball is used and the stick is heavier than that used in Ice Hockey. The radical difference between the two games is that, in Ice Polo, there is no strict off-side rule, so that passes and shots at goal may come from any and often the most unexpected direction. Five men constitute a team: a goal-tend, a half-hack, a center and two rushers. The rushers must be rapid skaters, adept in dribbling and passing and good goal shots. The center supports the rushers, passing the ball to them or trying for goal himself. The half-back is the first defense and the goal-tend the last. The rink is 150 feet long.
Rhode Island’s legacy in hockey evolved rapidly. Brown University played the first game of intercollegiate ice hockey in the United States, drubbing Harvard, 6-0 on Jan. 19, 1898. Eighteen natives have gone on to play in the National Hockey League. And for 51 years Providence had a franchise in the American Hockey League called the Reds that played in the raucous old Rhode Island Auditorium. (Some people called it the Rhode Island Arena. Part of the confusion was that the building featured the word “Auditorium” on the marquee and “Arena” on the facade.)
Named after the state bird, the team developed a loyal following. But it wouldn’t be Rhode Island unless there were a few quirks: Outside the state, the team was known and marketed as the Providence Reds. Locally, most folks called the club the Rhode Island Reds. Also, when the team became affiliated with the New York Rangers (perhaps the most despised Bruins rival after the Montreal Canadiens), locals seemed to have no problem rooting for players as Reds then against them as Rangers – at least when they competed against Bobby Orr and the gang about an hour’s drive north.
The Reds are gone now. The modern Bruins have their farm club firmly entrenched in Providence, but the feeling isn’t the same. At the Auditorium, sometimes you couldn’t see the ice by the third period because of all of the cigar and cigarette smoke. And when the building replaced the chicken wire with Plexiglass, if the Reds were losing (which they usually were in those days), fans would start chanting “Bring back the chicken wire!” Ah, old time hockey.
Like most of Rhode Island’s once-great landmarks, the Auditorium was reincarnated into a parking lot. If you’re interested in how the game was played there, check out the DVD “When the Reds Ruled the Roost.” Otherwise, what old Rhode Island landmarks do you miss the most?