Hockey fans in New England don't have much to cheer for this spring because the Boston Bruins are in utter disarray. It's a shame, because there's no place in the U.S. more fervent in its hockey fandom—sorry, Minnesota. The first hockey game on American soil was played at Yale University; Hobey Baker played his high school puck at St. Paul's in Concord, New Hampshire; about half of the gold medal winning 1960 US Olympic roster was made up of dudes from Massachusetts; the New England Amateur Athletic Union's annual championship tournament—held in Providence or at the Boston Garden—featured some of the best barnstorming teams in hockey's early history.
One of the most successful—and by far the longest tenured—of those teams, from a small town in northeastern Massachusetts, was the Amesbury Maples.
Founded in 1924 by Armand G. Hudon, Amesbury's deputy fire chief, and Emilien "Mickey" Jutras, a local barber and undertaker, the Maples' beginnings were humble: they played their games on a 150 foot by 85 foot sheet of ice that was mapped out on a local pond (indoor rinks were essentially unheard of at the time). Their roster, like the rosters of many amateur clubs in New England, was filled with French sounding surnames: Boudreau, Proulx, Lemoine, Lessard, Martel, Picard, Roy. Speaking of that French Canadian influence in New England ...
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries ushered into New England a period of unprecedented industrial growth. Powered by a superabundance of strong rivers—the Androscoggin, the Housatonic, and the mighty Merrimack, to name a few—mills began popping up all over the region and churning out anything from textiles to leather goods to horse-drawn carriages. This sudden and rapid uptick of production demanded—as it always does—an equally sudden and rapid influx of labor. New England mill town labor largely came in the form of French Canadian immigrants.
Perhaps not coincidentally, many of these traditionally French Canadian mill towns are also hotbeds of hockey. There hasn't been much written about the correlation between mill towns' French Canadian influx and their rich histories with hockey, but it seems improbable this would be a fluke.
During a period which began just after the conclusion of the Civil War and which ended around the onset of the Great Depression, more than a million French Canadians crossed the border into New England (via Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine) seeking mill work. Some came, made some money, and returned to Quebec, but others stuck around to make it in America.
The ones who stayed—the ones who, despite their wariness toward assimilation, raised their families and founded Franco-American clubs to preserve their language and gave their bodies to the cold brick of the tannery or the carriage mill—left an indelible mark on the region. Evidence of the Quebecois influence can be seen in cities and towns across New England, from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Lewiston, Maine to Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
One of those mill towns with a historically French Canadian population and a bad hockey habit is Amesbury, Mass. Amesbury's mills—which were powered by a tributary of the Merrimack called the Powwow—were known chiefly for their production of horse-drawn carriages. Once the trend in American transportation shifted away from literal horsepower and toward petrol, Amesbury's mills adapted and began manufacturing various parts for automobiles, including bodies. The leader in this then-cottage industry was a company called Biddle & Smart.
In an effort to boost morale (today, corporations call this "team building"), Biddle & Smart offered its employees the opportunity to participate in a company hockey league—a small consolation for toiling in a mill for about 15 cents an hour. Company hockey leagues or teams were commonplace in cities and towns with large Franco American populations, and one such team—from Bates Manufacturing in Lewiston, Maine, stocked mainly with men whose names had roots in Quebec and who spoke chiefly French—even represented the United States at the world amateur hockey championships in Europe.
Though the Biddle & Smart league boasted several sextets (this is the old-timey word for "hockey team"), none were more remarkable than the Amesbury Maples. The Maples played just three games in their first official season (1925-26), but enough interest was generated to carve out a new (still outdoor, but this time not on a pond) sheet of ice at the foot of Aubin Street.
By 1930-31, the Maples managed to position themselves as one of the best amateur teams in New England. In a year that saw the dedication of a third rink—dubbed Lemoine Memorial in honor of all-time Maples great Raoul "Chiefy" Lemoine, the team's first goaltender—the Maples made a run to the semi-finals of the New England Amateur Athletic Union championship in Providence.
In 1931, the Amesbury News reported that the Maples would, for the first time, carry 11 players—enough for two at each position except for goal—and that "Replacements will probably be made every five minutes." Two lines, five minute shifts. Oh, how the game has changed. The same article stated, "The Maples are now awaiting the arrival of cold weather. They hope to be able to start their season the week before Christmas." In the time before Freon, teams had to rely on a deep freeze to ensure the ice would be ready for the season.
Despite ice issues, the 1931-32 Maples made another run to the semi-finals of the NE AAU tourney, where they lost to the Rhode Island Scarlets. 1931-32 also appears to be the first season the newspapers began keeping stats for Maples games. In just 22 games played, Harlan "Chewie" Williams—why don't nicknames like this exist anymore?—notched 50 points (43 goals and 7 assists; the Ovechkin of the Biddle & Smart league).
The next season was, yet again, hampered by a light winter and therefore limited ice. And despite going 21-5-1 in 1934-35, there's no mention of the Maples playing in the NE AAU tourney. The season wasn't without it's highlights, however— goaltender Jules Roy scored a goal and registered two helpers in the same game; his brother, Aime Roy, was knocked unconscious during the game, too. A weird day for the Roy family.
In 1935-36, the Maples were not shut out in any competition—including games at the Boston Garden—and finished 14-8-1 en route to yet another birth in the NE AAU tournament in Providence. However after reaching the semis again, the Maples were bounced from the tournament. Though they'd certainly asserted themselves as a top dawg, the Maples still couldn't get over the hump and win New England.
The following winter brought with it more mild weather, and as a result the Maples didn't play a single game on the sheet at Lemoine Memorial—instead they played the majority of their games in Lewiston, ME (a hike) and at the Boston Garden (not a bad alternative).
Good weather or bad weather, ice or no ice, Lemoine Memorial rink was not long for this world. In 1937 it was determined that the sheet was too small, so the Maples—with $47,000 granted them by the Works Progress Administration—broke ground on a rink beside Amesbury High School. Along with a new rink came the ushering in of a new tradition: the Maples would host a dance and name its fairest attendee the team's official "Hockey Queen."
From the Amesbury News, 1937:
Miss Marguerite Durante, attractive blond, of Cedar Street, this town, was the unanimous choice of the judges for "Miss Maples Hockey Club," and was crowned as such at the weekly benefit dance of the Maples Hockey Club in Grange Hall Saturday evening. She was presented a silver loving cup, emblematic of the honor.
Ok, maybe not the most feminist thing they could have done (definitely not the most feminist thing they could have done), but you've got to admit there's some charm in imagining this dance in the late 1930s where all of these well-dressed people gathered to support the local team and anoint the local beauty queen. Maybe?
After posting a 16-2 record in the 1938-39 season and outscoring their opponents 117-41, the Maples were poised to do something they'd been building toward for more than a decade: lift the NE AAU championship trophy. Expectations outpaced reality, though, and they were eliminated yet again.
The Maples and their fans—they routinely drew crowds of 200 or more, who braved the cold weather of Lemoine Memorial, which had been nicknamed "Pneumonia Park,"—wouldn't have to wait long for their trophy, though. After posting an 18-3-2 record in 1939-40 and outscoring their opponents 200-80, the Maples finally did what they'd set out to do: they won the NE AAU championship, blanking rival Concord, NH 7-0 in the title game. The win gave the Maples the right to compete in the national AAU playoffs in Lake Placid, NY where they'd lose 9-4 in the semi-final game to the University of Minnesota, the tournament's eventual champions.
Though they didn't achieve top national honors, the Maples had by 1940 established themselves as a juggernaut of American hockey. They were arguably the best amateur team in the northeast, and they had the pedigree—and the hardware—to prove it.
While subsequent years didn't quite live up to the Maples' halcyon days—they won several Merrimack Valley Hockey League championships, but never got back to the US nationals—and US engagement in WWII dictated the Maples played exactly zero games from 1941 to 1947, the legacy lived on for another couple of generations, until the team finally dissolved in 1997. At the time of their disbandment, the Maples were the oldest amateur hockey club in the US—the war notwithstanding, they played for 73 consecutive seasons. This history is not lost on the guys who made up some of the rosters from the Maples' later years.
"My first time playing for the Maples was as a 9th grader, in the spring of 1972," says George Dodier, coach of the Amesbury high school team and an ex-Maple. "They were playing in a spring league in Haverhill and Jack Farmer was the coach. He was nervous about me playing because of my size. As luck would have it I was in front of the net when Roger Nadeau shot a puck from the point which deflected off of a defender and hit me in the head just above my right eye, good for 9 stitches. "
Playing for the Maples as a high schooler wasn't an uncommon occurrence as it turns out.
"I was playing for the Maples, I was playing for the high school team, I was playing in the rec league—I was playing wherever I could," said Leo Dupere, former Amesbury high school coach, former US national team member, and holder of the second-best single-season tally in Northeastern University's history.
"My career with the Maples began in 1991, just as I was getting out of college," says former Amesbury high school and Maples stud Troy McGrath. "I obviously grew up in the area, had watched a lot of high school hockey as a kid, and knew some of the guys who were a few years older than me that were playing—Rob Ouellette, Jason Farmer, Andy Lucier, Jim Caponigro, Gerry Tinkham, Rick Poulin, Steve Klein—and they asked if I wanted to play. I knew they were all good players, so I jumped at the opportunity.
"I was certainly aware of the historical significance of the team. Local Legend Alphonse Picard, who was an integral early member of the Maples, was also instrumental in the start of the Amesbury Youth Hockey program. Many of the local great hockey players had skated for the Maples, so it had always been well known to me."
The days of outdoor hockey rinks and barnstorming amateur teams and five minute shifts are pretty well done, but American hockey fans—especially those in New England—have teams like the Maples to thank for popularizing (and perfecting) the game.
This article would not have been possible without the research of the late Bert Spofford.