Long before their passion became their profession, there was the street.
They practice in the nicest rinks in the world, they received elite training at a young age, but most NHL players spent a few carefree younger days with little more than a stick, a ball, and their buddies. It is a common experience for most anyone who has played the game, from those who last played before high school to those in the Hall of Fame.
The Bruins were sharing memories of street hockey Thursday in advance of the opening of the Willie O’Ree Community Rink, a paved, painted surface at Smith Playground on Western Avenue in Allston. The facility, decked out with nets and boards, is part of a pledge from the Bruins to donate at least $250,000 to refurbish street rinks in the city. The club is also sponsoring a street league named after O’Ree, who broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958.
“Any time you can erect a facility where you can bring boys and girls and get them together, with different races and creeds,” O’Ree said, “they can come out and enjoy the game, what more can you ask?”
The aim is to get kids outdoors, Bruins president Cam Neely said, “as opposed to bending down looking at their phones playing games.”
Neely, after presenting a check and hailing O’Ree — who joins him in the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 12 — recalled moving the nets for cars in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He was not alone.
Coach Bruce Cassidy, the same age as Neely (53), was doing the same on Coldrey Avenue in Ottawa. The Cassidy brothers had a deal with each other: Stephen, older by a year and a half, would play goalie if Bruce lugged his gear.
“Every day of my life I was on the street,” Cassidy said, recalling neighborhood-vs.-neighborhood battles after he finished his newspaper-route deliveries. “I loved it. I think most kids in Canada that are my age, I would guess 8 out of 10 did it all the time.”
In the former communist city of Trencin, Slovakia, Zdeno Chara used to play “a lot. All the time. Pretty much every day,” said Chara, 41, as he surveyed a mass of kids whacking a plastic ball. “I wish we’d have had something as beautiful as this. We were on the streets, made nets out of garbage cans. It was just a blast.”
Patrice Bergeron, 33, was a daily participant with his older brother, Guillaume, on Rue de L’Etourneau in Charny, outside of Quebec City.
“Basically my childhood in a nutshell,” he said. “It was a pretty quiet street, so it was nice.”
Anders Bjork, 22, was on Ravine Court in Mequon, Wisc., or across the street at the pond, with his younger brother, Brady. They still battle in the driveway when both are home for the summer. Neither gives an inch.
“That’s what we love,” Bjork said. “Even now, when it’s my job, it’s tough because it’s a performance business, but playing reminds you it’s a game and it’s fun.”
The barrier of entry to ice hockey is high. Equipment and league fees can cost several thousands of dollars a year. The rink in Allston is part of the Bruins’ commitment to remove the financial aspect and allow kids to show up, play, and dream.
“The best of the best,” said former Bruins blueliner Andrew Ference, now the NHL’s director of social impact, growth, and fan development, “We all spent more time playing street than ice.”
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports