SI Vault
Frank Deford
July 13, 1970
Sports, politics and tradition all have equal status in Boston, which has again refused to build a municipal stadium. Is Boston trailing the rest of the country? Maybe it's so far ahead it just seems behind
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July 13, 1970

Who Are The Hub Men?

Sports, politics and tradition all have equal status in Boston, which has again refused to build a municipal stadium. Is Boston trailing the rest of the country? Maybe it's so far ahead it just seems behind

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For the sake of our international relations, a bill should be placed before Congress that would require any traveler from abroad to disembark at Boston and spend 48 hours there before moving on to New York and the rest of the U.S. Boston would serve as a decompression chamber. It is one of the last outposts of cosmopolitan behavior in the land; a city, yet not overwhelming. "We don't want to be a mini-New York," the mayor says. "Our problems are still soluble."

Upon arrival in Boston, foreigners would be shown that American cab drivers can be polite, that subways can be clean, that college students, even with long hair, do not engage solely in public anarchy and intercourse. Then a trip down the Freedom Trail, a stroll by the banks of the Charles and a dinner at the Ritz or Joseph's. Afterward the foreign tourists would be brought to the surface of America—to the frontier, as it were—namely a Bruin game at the Boston Garden. Following this exposure, New York cabbies, railroad clerks, thumby waitresses, teen-agers and all egalitarians who use "Hon" and "Mac" as a form of address would appear neither intimidating nor extreme.

"Get him from behind, pull him down and pound him," a gentleman in the balcony suggests in a loud voice. Here is belligerent America, a crowd that knows its hockey only less than its values. Opponents—or the champion Bruins on the rare occasions when they play poorly at home—are demeaned in a vocabulary never heard in other sports. Players are not dismissed as just "bums" or "stiffs." Instead, they are "cowards" or "chickens." When curiously archaic epithets like "weasel" and "sewer rat" are favored, the adjective "yellow" is sure to be prefixed. Good, clean players like Don McKinney get run out of town. It seems more a test of belligerence than of sport, and it is very nearly ugly.

It is not ugly, though, because Hub Men understand hockey and appreciate the intricacies of the game. The crowd resembles an educated Spanish bullfight audience more than an American sports gathering. It is an intimate crowd, too, clubby at every level. Below, in the best seats, old preppies with angular Marquand faces, still wearing blue button-down oxfords and thin regimental stripes, are as neighborly and vociferous as the Gallery Gods who sit above in the $2 seats of the first rows of the top rim. At least one of the Gods has been there for every Bruin game since the Garden opened for hockey on Nov. 20, 1928, when a surging mob of 17,000 literally broke down the doors in a prologue of things to come. There is a riot every April, predictably, when the few playoff seats not held by season ticket-holders go on public sale. Those who camped out are trampled. Women are mauled. Only the strong and mean survive to get inside and see the Bruins play.

Unlike all other U.S. cities—except, perhaps, Minneapolis-St. Paul—hockey is part of the tradition in Boston, not a Sunday road show with mercenaries in from Saskatchewan. The usual roles, in fact, are reversed with basketball, which is the grass-roots game for most of the country. When the Celtics first came to town in '46, so few high schools emphasized basketball that Honey Russell, the coach, had to have clinics for the basketball writers to create interest in the game.

Though basketball is no longer alien, the populace remains indifferent to it. "I've always thought we had a better chance of losing the Celtics than the Patriots," says Sam Cohen, the sports editor of the Record American for 35 years. Bob Cousy finally grew so discouraged and exasperated that he left the area he loves. His highly ranked Boston College teams drew mainly out-of-state students; the Celtics made money only because of the playoffs. Then the fans were there for blood—not the real kind that the Bruins could provide on the ice but the symbolic variety that the lowly Bruins could not give them in those years: the blood of the vanquished. They were swirling, nasty mobs, so uncontrolled in the presence of victory that after the 1966 championship was won, John Havlicek sat disgusted in the victorious locker room and denounced them as ruffians.

Of course, except for the extraordinary dynasty, the Celtics would have gone under years ago. The team lost $462,000 in its first four years. In 1950 Garden President Walter Brown and a partner took over the Celtics for a token $2,500. Before Bill Russell appeared, rather like a divine intervention, Brown had lost $500,000 and had literally mortgaged his home. Eddie Powers, the friendly Hub Man who now runs the Garden, served as assistant treasurer of the Celtics. Since there was no money in the treasury, he was more valuable for his qualifications at legerdemain. "We used to have to spend all of the withholding tax," Powers remembers. "One day the IRS man finally gave up and came to my office and said that the Government had taken enough from us and had to take us over. I stood up behind my desk and spread out my hands—you have to be an actor sometimes—and said, 'O.K., you're going to have an auction sale of the Boston Celtics. How much do you think the Government can get from a dozen T shirts, some used jockstraps and a few beat-up basketballs?' Those were the assets of the Boston Celtics. He left, shaking his head, and Walter kept the thing going."

Hockey remains the winter game. More than 150 high schools in the area field teams, and there are amateur leagues going at every rink. Up at Lynn one league plays at 3:30 in the morning. Mayor White plays hockey. One day in March the Bruins drew 4,000 to a practice. A few days before, in a four-day period, 68,840 paid to see five Garden hockey events—NHL, college and high school. When BC opened its new rink in 1958 with a game against Harvard, Cardinal Cushing himself intervened to get the best Eagle skater out of scholastic purgatory and into the lineup. State politicians, who know where the votes are, maintain that there are now more French-Canadians in the Greater Boston area than any other ethnic group, including the fabled Irish.

"Let's not kid ourselves," Eddie Powers says. "Without the Bruins this place doesn't open." The Garden, a brainchild of Tex Rickard, is one of only a handful of arenas in the nation to run at a profit, and hockey—plus its genteel cousins, the ice shows—is the reason. The Bruins are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Garden, and its young president, Weston Adams Jr., admits that he is interested in the possibility of bringing a Bruin farm team into the Garden—the way the Canadiens worked it in Montreal. That is ominous for the Celtics.

The enthusiasm for hockey and the lack thereof for basketball was substantiated in a study made last summer of Boston fans' preferences. The Celtics—as well as the Patriots—come off as woebegone. The only plus image of the Patriots was that they provide body contact; the most favorable thing that could be said for the Celtics' image was that their game offered lots of scoring and no tie possibilities.

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