“PING” was the sound heard as a little orange ball smacked the metal post. “TAP!” “TAP!” “TAP!” echoed into the night sky as carbon fiber blades slammed on the concrete rink.
Flying down the rink at breakneck speeds are seven young men carrying hockey sticks. “Vroom” was the distinct sound their skates made as they swept along the pavement and fired backhanders into the crossbar of the net. Once someone scores, they do their best to celly like Bergeron, Marchand, or McAvoy.
If you ever find yourself in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, make your way to the western edges of the neighborhood. Not far from Sullivan Square and the infamous traffic circle lies Ryan Playground. Nestled by the banks of the Mystic River, this playground is where the local Townies spend their summers honing their hockey skills and having fun.
All summer, local roller hockey players from the Town frequently meet to play seemingly endless two-on-two hockey games.
These hockey games can be a challenge to find. Though it has become gentrified, parts of the Town still feel like stepping into a mid-20th century time capsule. Everyone in the Town seems to know each other; and most events are promoted via word of mouth rather than through online posts. These include local roller hockey games and tournaments. The games themselves are kind of a local secret that only those who are willing to put in the effort can find them. You won’t find game times posted on a website or Twitter; instead you have to make the effort by strapping on a pair of skates and skating between Eden Street, Main Street and Ryan Playground off of Alford Street to see if there is any action.The games are simple: no helmets, no gloves, just sticks, a ball, and a pair of blades. The play is aggressive and fast, it features no intentional hitting, but plenty of contact does occur. Players also aren’t afraid to take a stick to the shins or to throw a stick to disrupt a shot. As a result, the games feature plenty of speed, grit, and Charlestown’s own trademarked brand of trash talk. Much like a Boston version of The Sandlot or Mystery, Alaska, the games are seemingly endless.
However, these are not Irish hoodlums or random street kids playing these games. Instead, these are some of North America’s finest young athletes. These are AAA Midgets; USHL, USA Development and Catholic School Players; a D1 prospect; and a Boston College commit.
These kids spend their autumns, winters, and springs on the ice five days a week, engaging in rigorous drills, traveling for tournaments, and impressing scouts – only for them to continue to spend their summers playing more hockey.Why do they do it? Because hockey is in their blood. These kids eat, sleep and breathe hockey. They were raised in a hockey-crazed community. From the day they can walk, Townies are doing it with a hockey stick in hand. Born with a competitive spirit and the work ethic of their Irish ancestors, these kids bring an old-school blue-collar mentality to what has become a white-collar game.
“The atmosphere is just different there,” says Owen McHale, a left wing for the Boston Jr. Eagles. “There are no off games. Every game is like the Stanley Cup Finals where I’m from.”
What makes Charlestown’s atmosphere so different? It likely lies in the long-storied history of the neighborhood. In the early 20th Century, the last significant wave of Irish Immigration made its way to the Boston area. Charlestown became a blue-collar Irish-American neighborhood known for being a little rough around the edges. Due to the neighborhood’s blue-collar nature, its residents learned to work hard and play hard. Having blue-collar roots is a source of pride among those in the Town. The town residents have brought their blue-collar work ethic onto the ice. Even today, their descendants treat their working-class ancestry as a source of pride. Being referred to as a Townie is a badge of honor among these kids. It’s even embroidered on their hockey jerseys. That working-class pride means these kids treat every game, from the local unorganized pick-up to playing in the USPHL, as a must-win. No matter the type of game or situation, these kids will grind until the buzzer sounds.Joining Mr. McHale at the rink was Teddy Stiga, who will be spending the year playing with the U.S. National Development U17 team and is a Boston College commit; the second from the 2006 birth year class. Stiga is quick, and by magic, the ball always seemed to find the blade of his stick. He is a bit of a hockey legacy. Charlestown’s own John Kelly coached his father, and his sister will be lacing up the skates with the Providence Friars.
Also joining them is Cullen Lacey, a young man who relishes in the grittier parts of the game. Not afraid to dish out a hit or shove a stick in someone’s shins, Lacey, a defenseman, will be lacing up the skates this year with the Las Vegas Thunderbirds in the USPHL. “I like the responsibility of playing defense…and it’s fun to bundle kids,” Lacey said with a smile when asked why he likes to be a blue liner.
Quinn Grzelcyk was out there having a blast. If his surname sounds familiar, that’s because he is the nephew of the Boston Bruin’s Matt Grzelcyk. Quinn is quick and enjoys throwing around some muscle when he plays, much like his uncle. He proudly carries on the family name each time he laces up the skates for Charlestown.
Stephen Fabiano is always spry and agile on the rink; further adding to his game is a quick trigger and excellent puck-handling skills. Fabiano currently skates as a forward for BIV High School.Brothers Connor and Patrick Woods were there, too. Patrick, the elder of the pair, is a fellow forward for the Boston Jr. Eagles along with McHale. The younger Connor is currently a forward in the Town’s own Charlestown Youth Hockey Association.
We will be hearing about our friends in Charlestown soon. Except to see them in the NCAA, Beanpot or even in the NHL draft in the coming years.
Joshua Courter is a hockey historian, a hockey hobbyist and a diehard Rangers aficionado. Whether on roller or ice, Josh enjoys spending his free timing playing the game and lighting the lamp. Follow him on Twitter @josh_courter. ■