As the Boston Bruins lost to the Montreal Canadiens in game seven of the semi-finals on the road to the Stanley Cup, Suzanne Strempek Shea consoled herself with memories of better Bruin days, including those she knew as a kid, when she fell in love with hockey during the reign of Bobby Orr. Here’s one of those memories.
Suzanne Strempek Shea is the author of ten books, including the newly released “This Is Paradise: An Irish Mother’s Grief, an African Village’s Plight and the Medical Clinic That Brought Fresh Hope to Both.” www.suzannestrempekshea.com
Love on ice … at age 13
by Suzanne Strempek Shea
My mother flung out her arm and knocked me back to the sidewalk. The big blue car that I’d almost stepped in front of rolled smoothly past us and down Causeway Street.
We’d traveled so far and I’d waited so long for this day, my mother reminded me. We were almost in the door of the Boston Garden and now I was going to get myself killed.
“But that was Bobby Orr!”
I was 13 years old an absolute nut for the Boston Bruins.
This was 1972, two years after the team had won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1941, and one year after its unsuccessful defense of it. But I was no fair-weather fan. I’d long before caught the bug from my father, who grew up playing hockey on the Chicopee River that marked the end of his dead-end Chicopee Falls street. He dated my mother at Springfield Indians games in the Coliseum, where team owner and former Bruin great Eddie
Shore regularly stalked around, shining a flashlight in the face of fans brazen enough to put their feet up on the chairs in front of them.
Winter nights, I’d fall asleep listening to our radio fuzzily picking up the Bruins games on Boston’s WBZ. In time, we purchased and hooked up in our attic a huge television antenna that was shaped like an arrow and pointed in the general direction of the other end of the state, and Boston. With the dawn of cable, we got our first clear and regular pictures of the Boston Bruins in action. My passion shifted into full gear.
I read everything I could about the team. I collected the cards, saved for the magazines and the yearbooks, monopolized the titles owned by the library. I kept scrapbooks, one solely for columns by the Boston Herald-American’s D. Leo Monahan. I memorized the players’ middle names, hometowns, birthdays, and those of their wives and kids and pets. I knew that Ken Hodge had a pool shaped like his number eight. That Derek Sanderson’s father once kept a jar of stitches collected from his son’s face and body during Junior hockey days. I committed to memory career stats and could go head-to-head on Bruins trivia with any boy.
While my sister was up in our room applying her first brushes of makeup, I was down in the cellar, paying homage to my hero goalie, Gerry Cheevers, by painting on my street-hockey mask the same type of stitched-up scars that adorned the one that covered his face. As my sister curled her hair with orange juice cans, I happily emptied more for her, working toward the dozen labels I’d need to get a free Bobby Orr poster being offered by Minute Maid.
When it arrived, I tacked it above my bed, above the team color picture clipped from the Sunday Globe that previous fall. Below it, I dreamed of attending an actual game. But tickets those days were impossible for mere mortals. So I did what I had heard other desperate souls did: I prayed. And I wrote my congressman.
Actually, he was my state representative, the only politician I knew of in our neck of the woods, a guy named Al Lolas over in neighboring Monson. I knew that his work brought him to the Statehouse in Boston, so I dropped him a note asking if he had any way to get tickets while he was there.
With a kid’s undying optimism, I soon began checking our mailbox daily. Nobody but me believed I’d find anything in there. Then one day I actually did: three tickets wrapped in Al Lolas stationery. Bruins vs. Penguins.
He didn’t even bill me.
The Saturday took ages to arrive. After a morning of shopping, my parents and I found the Garden. Its bricks glowed golden. A train roared on the tracks overhead. And Bobby Orr drove by.
We were on his trail in an instant, running across the street and into a wide alley next to the building. There, the shiny blue car backed into a space. The door opened. Out stepped my first-ever in-person legend.
In the photo my mother quickly snapped, 24-year-old Robert Gordon Orr is impossibly young. He wears natty game day dress a three-piece gray suit topped by the muskrat coat I actually had a news clipping of him purchasing. He watches as I place on the hood of his Cadillac El Dorado the box of Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins we’d bought earlier in the day. I hand him a Filene’s bag, which he autographs in pencil, his right hand making the same looping signature as the fake one imprinted inside my worn copy of his 1970 picture-bio “Orr On Ice.” I don’t remember a conversation. That’s how it is when you’re truly stunned
It was a good win. The Bruins whipped Pittsburgh 6 to 3. But we viewed the victory from lousy seats. Far, far below us skated the little black and yellow and white dots that were Espy and Cheesy and Shaky and Turk. And my good pal Bobby Orr. But I didn’t complain about a thing. As I knew well, the Garden officially could hold 15,003 people. That day, my parents and I were the three at the end of the number. And I felt like an incredibly lucky one.
I was in the city the other day, making my way from the Sumner Tunnel to the expressway. I drove up the ramp and spotted the startling sight of the Garden in mid-deconstruction, one entire end of the sad 67-year-old structure chomped open by the wrecking crew. The end of the building where I’d been seated for that first Bruins game. The end that edged the alley that held the parking space where a bigshot once was kind to a speechless fan.
I nearly missed the exit I needed, the sudden one that gives leads to Cambridge and gives height-petrified people like me their last chance to bail before heading over the frightening Tobin Bridge. I took the right and shivered from the surprisingly disturbing sight of the death of a building I’d been in only a handful of times. A space now holding no more than light and dust and air, and nothing less than the gilded memories of countless starstruck kids.
– “Love on Ice” was first published in 1998, in the former Springfield (Mass.) Union-News.