clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Putting the "Olde Timey" Back in OTBH

A brief look at pre-Bruins (gasp!) Boston hockey.

The purpose of Olde Timey Boston Hockey is to look at some of the less well known bits of lore that make up the fabric of the last 88 years of Bruins history. Occasionally, however, we're going blow the doors right off of 1924 and really get down and dirty with the ‘olde timey' part of this shebang. Hockey in Boston didn't spring fully formed dressed in brown and gold out of the brain of Charles Adams (the way Athena sprang fully grown and armed out of Zeus's forehead, for example. I'll show my nerdy self out), but instead took root in a market that was primed for professional ice hockey.

What exactly was the hockey landscape in the United States prior to the establishment of its first NHL franchise? Probably more awesome than you think, actually. For example, did you know that in 1897, there was a Baltimore Hockey League? And that the 1896-1897 champion of that League was the University of Maryland Ice Hockey team? And that's just in the mid-Atlantic -- the late nineteenth century was awash in amateur and intercollegiate leagues in places like Wisconsin, Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and of course, the Northeast.

Actually, let's take 1897 as an example. In that year -- almost thirty years before the arrival of the Bruins, mind you -- Boston and its environs had its fair share of hockey. In that oh-so-distant past, Boston was (gasp) without a permanent indoor ice surface, but outdoor playing surfaces abounded, and so too did amateur hockey. In particular, the city sported a team known as the Cambridge Ice Polo and Ice Hockey Team (ice polo is SO wacky, guys), which would match up against the local Harvard squad as well as amateur teams from other regions (the New York Athletic Club team, for example). Cambridge (also known as the all-Massachusetts Team), as it turns out, was kind of terrible: they only won 2 of their 10 matches that year, and lost to McGill University's squad by a score of 14 to 1. Yeeesh.

The team itself was made up entirely of New Englanders, with graduates of institutions like MIT, Harvard, and Brown populating the roster. It was also the only American squad to take its show on the road that year, making a 6 game swing through Canada that included opponents such as the Aberdeen Hockey Club, Ottawa College, and the senior Quebec Hockey Club. They got their asses handed to them in each and every match, but their trip only goes to show the headway amateur hockey was making in the U.S., and the seriousness with which people from the Boston Area were engaging with the sport as players. The coverage their trip received in the Boston Globe, on the other hand, demonstrates the popularity of the game among fans. Each game was recapped in the paper, and substantial space devoted to bemoaning the team's lack of success against the more established Canadian rosters. Even without a formal professional or semi-professional league in the area, people clamoured for news of the Cambridge team's Canadian swing.

Hockey wasn't limited to the Cambridge Ice Polo and Ice Hockey Team, though: area papers reported on a variety of other hockey happenings in the region. In 1897, coverage of high school teams in towns like Arlington, Franklin, and Dorchester was standard. Spy Pond seemed to be the common staging ground for these high-school battles (and also where the Cambridge team faced off against Harvard), and these matches often received as much media attention as the (really, truly terrible) Cambridge squad. Intercollegiate teams were covered, too, with Yale, Harvard, and other area universities being reported on fairly extensively. In fact, throughout the winter months, hockey was all over the sports pages of the local papers.

It's this kind of rich history that proved to be such fertile ground for hockey when Charles Adams came around, plying his professional team. Obviously, the introduction of the professional game meant an adaptation for fans to a new set of rules and a new pace, but at the heart of it, hockey was hockey and people in the Boston area knew about hockey. After all, the premise of the game (as described in the 1898 Ice Hockey guide) was the idea that a "successful ice hockey player must be very active on his feet, quick with his hand, keen of eye and have all his faculties alert" -- seems pretty legit to me, and is a set of criteria that seems likely to carry over from amateur, high school, and intercollegiate hockey to the professional game.

The creation of the Bruins didn't create an entirely new hockey fanbase (though of course, it attracted many new supporters in the area, as the introduction of any professional team sport would): the greater Boston area was already steeped in a rich tradition of hockey at a variety of different levels. The fans were knowledgeable and excited and the city and region were well-prepared to buy into its new franchise. In some ways, then, the early success of the Bruins (in terms of fan support) can be attributed in part to this pre-existing culture of hockey -- without fans who were "reputed to know hockey," perhaps the initial impact of the Bruins would have been much more limited. 1924 is the date emblazoned in all our minds as the year that folks in Boston became Bruins fans -- it's important to remember that their status as fans of the game of hockey has a much deeper history even than that.