When Tammi Picard Perkins was a schoolgirl growing up in Amesbury, her father built a skating rink in the backyard.
The late Alphonse Picard was an early member of the Amesbury Maples, one of the oldest continuously operating amateur hockey clubs in the nation. After his playing days were over, he coached the team; he also started the town’s youth hockey program in the 1950s.
The whole family loved the sport. If any of the local kids didn’t have skates, Perkins said, her father would buy them. “In the off-season, my mom would stitch the uniforms, darn the holes in the stockings, wash everything.”
On a rainy weekday in late September, with Governor Charlie Baker on hand, Perkins was in Amesbury for the groundbreaking of Maples Crossing, the new six-rink, 410,000-square-foot, estimated $70 million complex scheduled to open on South Hunt Road.
One by one, the dignitaries at the groundbreaking spoke about the history of the Maples and Amesbury’s longtime love of hockey.
“It was emotional,” Perkins said. “My dad would have been so proud.”
Founded in 1924, the Maples can claim a long and often illustrious history. The team was a perennial contender for the New England Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship, routinely posting seasons with just a few losses and outscoring opponents at a rate better than two to one. In 1940, the team traveled to Lake Placid to compete for the national AAU title.
Playing in a succession of home rinks — at first outdoors (one was nicknamed “Pneumonia Park”), later indoors — the Maples’ roster featured a succession of local legends, from Picard and goaltender Raoul “Chiefy” Lemoine to Northeastern University Hall of Famer Leo Dupere and Larry Fournier, who led his Amesbury High School team to an astounding four-year record of 52-5-3 (1968-1972).
With so many French-Canadian families who’d come to the Merrimack Valley for the factory work, the game was a way of life in the area, said Dupere, a retired gym teacher. At the outdoor rinks, fans stood around the boards. There was “a little hut,” he said, “almost like a mobile home, with a skate sharpener and a couple of dressing rooms. They made hot dogs.”
Fournier, who died of cancer at age 33, will be memorialized in a proposed gallery of local hockey history at Maples Crossing. Mark Allred, a lifelong Amesbury resident who grew up hearing his father rave about the caliber of players that he skated against as a “beer league” goalie, is the founder of Black ‘n’ Gold, a Boston Bruins fan site and podcast, where he has taken it upon himself to document the history of the Maples.
After posting an article about Fournier — “the original Larry Legend” — Allred heard from a Minnesota hockey fan who said he owned one of Fournier’s old Maples jerseys.
“The second I heard that, I said, ‘That jersey belongs back here,’ ” said Mike Gorman, project manager for Global Property Developers, which is building the complex. He is amassing a collection of memorabilia to put on display at the arena.
About a week before the groundbreaking, Gorman asked Leo Dupere out for a cup of coffee. At that meeting, Gorman told the former Maples great about the decision to rename the hockey complex after the team. (The original name was Atlantic Sports Center.)
“I thought it was great,” said Dupere.
“We’ve been working on this for the past few years,” Gorman said. “Not a week would go by when somebody would say, ‘My dad — or my grandfather, or my brother, or my uncle — played for the Amesbury Maples.’ It just became obvious to us that this program meant so much to so many people. It seemed like a logical thing to do, to pay homage to that program.”
When the Maples held an old-timers’ reunion at Newburyport’s Graf Rink a couple decades ago, Perkins helped her father, 80 years old at the time, lace up his skates. Unbeknownst to him, his son, Randi, and his grandson, J. Randall Picard, had flown in from Arizona to skate with the patriarch.
Alphonse “was pretty excited when they came out of the locker room,” Perkins recalled. At Maples Crossing, they’re hoping to create a few more memories like that one.