The Murphy rink in South Boston smells of hockey, a curious mix of wet leather and industrial strength cleaner. There’s nothing fancy about the place. But the cinder block walls ooze hockey.
And that is why Teddy Cunniff can’t leave the place.
Ted Cunniff is my cousin, but that is not why I’m writing this. He is a Southie institution. Or at least he belongs in one. If you knew my family, oy.
Ted Cunniff is the only guy I know who summers in Florida and winters in Southie.
He has a place in Sarasota, but Sarasota is to hockey what Southie is to polo. When people in Sarasota lace them up, they play tennis. And so when the leaves fall in New England, Teddy Cunniff runs north, to run the skate shop at the Murphy, to coach kids on the ice.
A few years ago, I was at the rink, shooting the breeze with Teddy, when a woman burst in through the doors that separate the ice surface from the skate shop and concession stand.
“Call the cops!” she shouted breathlessly. “There’s a big fight on the ice! Call the cops!”
Teddy barely looked up from the skate he was sharpening, the sparks bouncing off his forearms, and deadpanned, “Lady, those are the cops.”
Rink rats who grew up in Southie, Dorchester, and Charlestown, now Boston cops, are among the denizens of the Murphy.
They had a time for Teddy Cunniff a few weeks ago in Columbia Point, to recognize the 35 years he has spent teaching kids how to play hockey and how to be good kids. Jerry York, the great Boston College coach, reminded everybody that Teddy still holds the Boston schoolboy record for goals in a game: 13 goals for Southie High against Jamaica Plain.
Jerry’s a Watertown guy, but when he’s in Southie, everybody calls him Yorkie, because that is what they do with names in Southie. He played on the same line at BC with Teddy’s brother, John Cunniff, one of the greatest hockey players to come out of Boston, let alone Southie.
John Cunniff died way too young, and a little bit of Teddy died with him, because their love of hockey was surpassed only by their love for each other. Every year, in March, Teddy and Tommy McGrath, who runs the Murphy, put on a youth tournament in John’s memory.
Mike Flaherty, who will rejoin the City Council in a couple of weeks, was one of the kids who Teddy let work at the skate shop. Compensation was a slice of pizza and a Coke.
But Flaherty’s favorite Teddy story is about Flaherty’s daughter, Ella.
Flaherty and his wife had been encouraging Ella to try hockey, but she was having none of it.
“That’s a boy’s game,” she insisted.
Mike Flaherty, who was around the rink because his other kids were playing, mentioned it to Teddy, who said, “Let me try.”
Teddy asked Ella what she liked to play.
“Tic tac toe,” she said.
“I can beat you,” he replied.
“No, you can’t,” she said.
He took paper out, and they proceeded to play an epic series of tic tac toe. Ella Flaherty was as good as her word, repeatedly pummeling him.
After losing time and again, Teddy said, “I can beat you.”
“No, you can’t,” she said.
“Here’s the deal,” he told her. “If I beat you, you have to try hockey.”
She stared him down and said, “OK.”
Suddenly, Ted Cunniff was unbeatable at tic tac toe. And just as suddenly, Ella Flaherty was on the ice, learning how to skate with Teddy and the late, great Arnie Bailey, who taught thousands of kids to skate before he, like John Cunniff, died way too young.
Ella Flaherty is 12 years old now, and every week Ted Cunniff sees her lug her hockey bag through the door at the Murphy rink. She has become a very good player.
She gives him the head nod. And he gives it right back.