On Dec. 1, 1924, the Boston Bruins played their very first game in the National Hockey League, and Boston Traveler sportswriter Frank Ryan gave the play-the-play for the radio broadcast.
Ryan’s wife, Madeleine, went to his parents’ house that night to listen to the game. She used a crystal radio receiver with earphones to hear Ryan make his debut as the voice of the Boston Bruins.
It was Monday night, and the Bruins were playing at the Boston Arena, the team’s home rink on St. Botolph Street. (The Boston Garden had not been built yet.) The inaugural game failed to draw a large crowd — according to one estimate, only 1,340 people showed up — but thanks to the WBZ radio broadcast, many more hockey fans got to hear Ryan’s voice over the airwaves describing the body checks and scuffles on the ice that night, as well as the pair of goals that propelled the B’s to their first-ever NHL victory, beating the Montreal Maroons by a score of 2 to 1.
“When Frank came home, we all told him how wonderful he did,” Madeleine Ryan later recalled. “He said ‘no, but next time it will be better.’ ”
The next day at the Bruins practice, Ryan went up to the press box with Bruins owner Charles Francis “C.F.” Adams, and together they worked on ways he could improve on calling plays and describing the action on the ice as it happened.
When Ryan went on the air at the next home game, listeners could tell the difference. The Bruins management received letters and phone calls praising Ryan’s work as a play-by-play announcer. Many thought that a new announcer had been hired.
Ryan even received fan mail from Canada. One fan in New Brunswick sent Ryan a handwritten letter praising him for his ability to keep up with the fast-paced game of hockey and make listeners seem like they were there. “I have heard sporting events over the air before,” the man wrote, “but never have I heard anything put over like you put the Canadiens and Bruins game last night, I tell you it was great.”
That handwritten letter, dated Dec. 9, 1924, is just one of many pieces of memorabilia that Frank Ryan’s 88-year-old daughter, Janice Ryan Plas, has preserved from her father’s illustrious broadcasting career.
In the living room of her Plymouth home sits a silver trophy cup that was given to her father early in his career. The inscription reads: “Presented by WBZ Radio Hockey Fans to Frank Ryan, in grateful appreciation of the many hours of pleasure afforded by his broadcasts of the Boston Bruins Hockey Games. December 25, 1926.”
“It’s gorgeous,” she said.
She said her father took his job seriously and practiced with flash cards to learn the names and numbers of visiting teams’ players before each game.
“My mother used to help my dad with the index cards, to help him memorize the numbers,” she said.
As the years went by, and Ryan continued to broadcast Bruins games, many credited him with helping make professional hockey successful in Boston.
Donna Halper, a professor of media studies at Lesley University, said Ryan was at the forefront of sportscasting along with Gus Rooney, who broadcast the first Red Sox game for WNAC in 1926.
“They were pioneers of broadcast journalism,” she said. “This was totally new.”
Being able to hear live sporting events on the radio was a novelty to many people in the 1920s.
“The fans were amazed,” she said. “Today we take this for granted.”
Ryan remained the official voice of the Boston Bruins until 1952, when a young radio announcer named Fred Cusick came on board and took over the play-by-play duties.
Ryan remained a diehard Bruins supporter to the very end.
In December 1961, Ryan was ill and in the hospital, but the B’s were still on his mind.
When a priest came in and started giving him his last rites, Ryan turned to him and said, “When I get out of here, father, I’m taking you to the next Bruins game.”
The priest said, “Keep quiet, Frank, I’m anointing you.”
After he was anointed, Ryan brightened up and told the priest that they’d go to the game together and “you’ll really see some sports action.”