By JEFF Z. KLEIN for the New York Times
Published: December 29, 2009
BOSTON ’ Just one mile from Fenway Park, the venerable baseball stadium where the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers will play outdoors in a New Year’s Day celebration of hockey’s roots, there stands a building that is even older and far more deeply entwined with the origins of the game.
Matthews Arena, an unassuming brick structure on the campus of Northeastern University distinguished from the outside only by the vaguely Moorish facade at its entrance, opened in April 1910 and has been a home to Boston hockey ever since.
It is so old that it was the original home of the Bruins, predating the now-vanished Boston Garden. It is so old that it was the first indoor site for hockey in all of Boston.
It is, in fact, the world’s oldest indoor hockey arena still in use.
"I’ve been there a lot," said Stephen Hardy, who skated there as a visiting player in high school and college in the 1960s and has returned often in three roles ’ as a fan, a hockey administrator and a historian of the sport. "It still gives me shivers to walk through the lobby and think that Hobey Baker walked through there almost a century ago."
For the first 72 years of its life, Matthews was known as Boston Arena. It was the starting point for the development of hockey in Boston, a culturally distinct branch of the game that has always lived in a self-contained world, separate from the larger Canadian game, and home to many of the best players the United States has produced.
"This building has seen a lot of history," said Jack Grinold, the sports information director at Northeastern since 1962.
The Bruins began their existence in 1923 as the N.H.L.’s first American franchise beneath the arena’s peaked, truss-supported roof. The New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association played their first games there before they became the Hartford Whalers and, eventually, the Carolina Hurricanes.
Boston Arena, with a current capacity of 5,400, was where the hockey programs of Northeastern, Boston College, Boston University and other local colleges started. It was also the first home of the Beanpot Tournament.
"The thing I found about hockey in Boston is that everyone has played with and against each other in high school, in college, and it goes back generations," said Jim Madigan, a scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins who came to Northeastern from Toronto in 1981 as a player and went on to coach the Huskies from 1986 to 1993. "They all know each other, and they all have their stories about the Boston Arena or Matthews."
One such story was offered by Ben Smith, who played in the building with Gloucester High School and Harvard and later coached Northeastern.
"Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the ice surface at the arena was short, and it was shaped kind of like a football," Smith said. "So we’d come in and play B.U., back when they were using the arena as their home ice, and I’d go back to touch the puck for icing, and here comes little Jack Parker from B.U. chasing after me. And I’d get my stick stuck in the boards in those narrow corners, and it’d stab me in the stomach and knock the wind out of me. Everyone thought Jack, who weighed 150 pounds, had knocked me out. I weighed about 200."
Parker is the longtime coach at B.U.; Smith lives down the street from him.
Through the first decade of the 20th century, hockey in New England was played outside, on frozen ponds and rivers. The opening of the arena galvanized Boston hockey.
The game had moved indoors in Canada and in scattered areas of the United States like New York and Pittsburgh several years earlier. Moving it indoors in Boston was like bringing a wild plant into a greenhouse and watching it grow.
"It was like a gift from heaven," Fred Hoey, a Boston Herald sportswriter, wrote a few years later. "The hope and ambition of every Greater Boston hockey player was realized ’ players and coaches could now count on a schedule of ice."
Within a couple of years, a wide array of schoolboy teams and amateur programs arose. Harvard no longer had to travel to St. Nicholas Arena on West 66th Street and Broadway in Manhattan to play against Yale and Princeton. Now the games could be played at Boston Arena, shifting the locus of Eastern hockey to Boston from New York.
Amateur senior teams formed. One winter around 1917, a young Red Sox player named Babe Ruth scrimmaged with the Arena A.C. team. "Finally he said, ’You guys are crazy,’ and quit," Grinold said.
The Bruins came to the building and were so successful that a bigger rink, Boston Garden, was built for them. The team’s defense corps included Myles Lane from nearby Melrose, Mass., and the patrician George Owen, a multisport star at Harvard. Thus began a long Bruins tradition of employing Boston boys, sometimes justly famous, sometimes justly obscure.
On Tuesday, the Northeastern Huskies men’s team was practicing at Matthews beneath a modern scoreboard installed in the most recent of the building’s many renovations.
But there was no mistaking the arena’s age. Old brick archways recalled late-19th-century factory design; fixtures for gas lamps still hung on an entryway wall; a wooden ticket kiosk stood near a side entrance; metal railings of the kind once used in English soccer grounds studded the end zones of the balcony, which the Bruins added to the building in 1926 to increase its capacity. The arena is mostly known as a hockey rink, but it has strong ties to other sports. The Celtics made their first home here, and it was also a noted boxing site.
Today, there are more than a dozen hockey arenas around Boston, including TD Garden, where the Bruins now play, all spawned in one way or another by the old arena. And on New Year’s Day, Boston hockey will have yet another rink, the one at Fenway, baseball’s oldest stadium yet two years younger than Boston Arena.
"Maybe it’s just my age, but why should I freeze watching a game in the cold?" Grinold said of the Fenway game. "I can just stay here at Matthews and watch the men or women play, and stay warm doing it."
That is what Bostonians have been doing for nearly 100 years.