Celebrating hockey in Western Massachusetts

By Eric Levine || AHL On The Beat Archive

The first professional hockey game in Western Massachusetts was played at the historic Coliseum on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition, or the Big E, on Dec. 1, 1926. Just over 86 years later, Don Moorhouse, the Springfield Falcons Director of Strategic Sales, is bringing hockey back to the "Big E" and returning the sport to its outdoor roots once again.

Moorhouse started the "24-Hour Outdoor Game presented by Big Y" last year with the backing of Falcons President and General Manager Bruce Landon. The event allows participants to rent ice for an hour outside of the Coliseum, which hosted the Springfield Indians and Kings from 1926 through 1972. Participants in the outdoor game, which begins this Saturday at noon and lasts 24-straight hours, receive tickets to Sunday’s Falcons game against the Portland Pirates, bringing hockey in Western Mass. full circle from its origins at the Coliseum to its modern-day home at the MassMutual Center.

The grounds for the outdoor rink are cleared by staff of the Big E, and the rink is built by Moorhouse.

Hockey has not been played at the Coliseum since 1991, and the subsequent removal of the facility’s ice plant makes the sport’s return to the building unfeasible. There remains, however, fans of the sport in the area who yearn for the days of when legendary Eddie Shore ran the Indians and the Coliseum. That group includes the Springfield Hockey Heritage Society, which celebrates the area’s history of ice hockey.

"We can’t bring ice back to the Coliseum, but we can build an outdoor rink behind it," Moorhouse said. "Outdoor hockey is the most authentic version of our game."

While enthusiasm for outdoor hockey events has grown over recent years, the execution of the games is often reliant on the weather. During last year’s inaugural outdoor game, daytime temperatures swelled into the 50s, so participants played on a nearby ball hockey rink. The weather did not diminish the experience of hockey returning to the grounds of the Big E, as participants remained at the event well into the early morning.

"It was amazing to see people show up and not even question there not being ice," Moorhouse said. "There were so many people that were there tailgating. They were celebrating being out at the Coliseum for a hockey event."

"There were a lot of ‘I remember when…’ stories," he added.

Moorhouse, who is from the region and was a goaltender collegiately in Springfield at American International College, has a deep appreciation for the history of hockey in Western Mass. Among a slew of hockey names from the area are former NHL forward Bill Guerin (Wilbraham), LA Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi (Ludlow), and Nashville Predators Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton (Springfield). The region has one of the state’s top high school teams (Cathedral High School) and two Division I college hockey programs (UMass-Amherst, American International College).

"There’s a great hockey history in terms of the success that the Indians had and the success the Falcons had in their early years and the success they’re having now," Moorhouse said. "The history includes Eddie Shore, right up until the present day with Bruce Landon, who has endeavored to keep the franchise here."

While Moorhouse came up with the idea for the outdoor game 10 years ago, he only recently was able to begin organizing it when he began working for the Falcons at the start of the 2011-2012 season.

"I wouldn’t do this without the affiliation with the Falcons," he said. "It’s a great way to drive group tickets and generate publicity."

Moorhouse added, "There are a lot of people who come out and look at the rink because it is sort of an anomaly, and maybe it generates some interest in them wanting to come out and watch the Falcons. I think it’s a win for hockey, the team, and the community."

Snow is forecasted for Friday and temperatures are shaping up to be in the 20s for Saturday, so buzz for the second rendition of the outdoor game is elevated compared to last year.

"We have pre-booked more slots than we did last year by far," Moorhouse said. "The success of last year’s event, and the fact that we have cold weather this week, is really getting people excited about it and wanting to come back to do it again."

The weather is cooperating, the outdoor rink is frozen, and the modern-day Springfield hockey club is sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings. It should be a great weekend for the celebration of hockey in Western Mass.