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Volume 20 No. 42
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Old arenas: Loud and proud

Hockey’s cathedrals held noise and memories (and a runaway monkey)

The old NHL hockey barns may not have had the luxuries of today’s arenas, but, oh, the noise.

Team owners, club presidents and arena managers remember those old concrete, brick and steel fortresses, built small and tight, as much for their sounds as for their looks. Chicago Stadium and Boston Garden, two Original Six arenas that opened in the 1920s, as well as the Spectrum in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Civic Arena, both built in the 1960s, were among a select group of vintage arenas known for immense crowd noise rattling their formidable walls.

“The Madhouse on Madison,” as the Chicago Blackhawks’ former home on Madison Street was called, was a bandbox built with just 230,000 square feet. It was tiny compared with United Center, the massive 960,000-square-foot arena across the street that replaced it in 1994.

Chicago Stadium in 1994. “When the crowd roared, that building would actually shake,” says Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz.

But somehow, the much-smaller Chicago Stadium fit the same number of fans as United Center does today. Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz, whose grandfather Arthur Wirtz created a sports empire that included Chicago Stadium and, years later, the NHL team, remembers the city’s fire marshal looking the other way when standing-room crowds packed the arena.

“When the crowd roared, that building would actually shake,” Wirtz said. “Your ears would ring at the end of the period with the sound bouncing off the brick walls. There was no glass, nothing to absorb it. Literally, when a [Blackhawks] goal was scored, it would lift you off your feet.”

Tight seating bowls in those buildings, all since demolished, produced some of the best views of the ice in sports, especially in the steep upper decks, where die-hard fans such as Boston’s “Gallery Gods” perched directly over the ice, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs said.

“I went to games at Boston Garden and the first row of the second level was maybe 20 feet above the ice and 20 feet back from the glass,” said Rich Krezwick, senior vice president of facilities for AEG Europe. “It was the best seat in sports, ever. You could hear the players talking on the bench and the goalie yelling instructions at his defensemen.”

Boston Garden was originally built for boxing, which led to those spectacular views, Jacobs said.

The building’s haphazard layout, however, resulted in obstacles for fans roaming the upper deck. Walking from one side of the arena to the other at the highest level meant having to walk through a men’s restroom at some point, “whether man or woman,” he said.

“It had nooks and crannies where you would be frightened to go into … and at intermission, there was no water pressure up there,” Jacobs said. “When I bought the team in 1975, it was old and antiquated then. We cleaned it up as best we could, but it was ‘lipstick on a pig.’ It needed replacing.”

Boston Garden in the 1960s

TD Garden, its replacement, opened in 1995 and was built within a foot of the old arena. Krezwick, whose first job in sports was working at the Spectrum and would later run TD Garden for the Jacobs family, was one of the last people to walk the old Garden before it was demolished.

Two weeks into demolition, work suddenly stopped after someone found a monkey carcass in the rafters. Officials think the animal escaped from a circus handler and managed to survive for a while eating spilled peanuts and popcorn, Krezwick said.

Squeezing TD Garden between the older facility and the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Federal Building ultimately created one of the tightest seating bowls among modern NHL arenas, he said. “A difficult design stage turned into one of the best buildings,” Krezwick said. “It didn’t deviate far from the old Garden.”

Paul Holmgren, president of the Flyers and a former Philly right winger, remembers how close he felt to the fans in the seats of the Spectrum. The tight bowl created a sense of skating on a much smaller rink compared with today’s bigger arenas.

“You realized just how passionate and into the game the fans were back then,” Holmgren said. “It almost seemed like a different fan base. I don’t want to say fans have changed. There’s certainly more corporate support in every arena and the [higher] cost of tickets has something to do with it. I’ve been in the new buildings, but they don’t seem as loud as the older buildings.

“I remember old Chicago Stadium, walking up the steps from the locker room, the organ was playing and the fans were going at it. The steps were shaking as you walked up to the ice. That’s how tight things were in those days.”

Pittsburgh Civic Arena in 2007

In the City of Brotherly Love, a big fight in the bowels of the Spectrum is part of Holmgren’s place in Flyers lore, but what’s noteworthy is that the incident led to the team making an operational adjustment at the arena. Holmgren and Boston Bruins star Wayne Cashman were both kicked out of a 1977 preseason game that produced mass ejections. Holmgren and Cashman took their beef underneath the stands as they approached the locker rooms.

“There were no rubber mats between the locker rooms in those days, so we were actually running down the hallways [with skates] on cement,” he said. “Before you know it, both benches emptied backwards in a brawl. I’m sure all the fans at the game that night wondered what the heck was going on.”

To prevent more fights from occurring in the hallways, the Flyers installed an iron gate dividing the route to the locker rooms. It stayed intact for more than 20 years until the Spectrum closed in 2009. The gate now sits in storage at Wells Fargo Arena, the Flyers’ home since 1996.

Pittsburgh Penguins President David Morehouse’s earliest memories of the Civic Arena were sneaking into hockey games for free. As a youngster, the ushers would let kids in the doors without a ticket in the Pens’ early days when they weren’t drawing well, Morehouse said.

As he got older, Morehouse, who grew up in a working-class family that did not have the money to buy game tickets often, was part of a group of friends that found creative ways to gain access to Penguins games. The Civic Arena, later renamed Mellon Arena, was built with glass doors circling the building at street level. The group would pitch in to buy one ticket, and the guy who got in the game legitimately would be followed by the others outside until he saw a door without a security guard. He would then pop the door open for everybody else to get inside, Morehouse said.

The Spectrum in 1988. The tight bowl created the sense of skating on a much smaller rink.

“One game in particular, one of our friends opened a door and it was snowing outside, so there was ice right when you walk in the door, and another friend slipped and fell and hit the back of his head,” he said. “I remember, we all looked at him lying there and kept going. It was every man for himself. [Morehouse’s buddy turned out to be OK.] We did that all through grade school and into high school. Not every game. But it was a challenge for us, and that was an easy arena to sneak into.”

Mellon Arena, similar to other NHL barns of the day, got deafeningly loud during key moments in games, especially after Penguins legend Mario Lemieux joined the team in 1984. Lemieux scored his first goal on his first shift in his first game as a Penguin, according to Morehouse.

“The crowd started being conditioned for it,” he said.

After one Lemieux playoff goal, Morehouse said, it felt like the entire arena was vibrating and the roof was going to pop off.

“When we moved into our new arena [in 2010], we were a little concerned that it didn’t seem as loud as Mellon did,” he said. “Then we realized, the old arena had a stainless steel roof and the sound bounced down, and we now have an acoustically engineered building for concerts. It got loud last year for the Stanley Cup Final, but I don’t think it will ever get as loud as Mellon Arena did because of the way it was built.”