Matthews Arena on Northeastern University’s campus has seen a lot of history, so much that the New York Times profiled The Ice Rink That Changed Boston Hockey in 2009. “I’ve been there a lot,” said Stephen Hardy, who skated there as a visiting player in high school and college in the 1960s and has returned often in three roles — as a fan, a hockey administrator and a historian of the sport. “It still gives me shivers to walk through the lobby and think that Hobey Baker walked through there almost a century ago.” It’s the oldest indoor hockey arena still in use. Matthews Arena opened on April 16, 1910, the sports moment judged the greatest in school history for its historical impact. Northeastern’s web site explains.
On April 16, 2010, the Matthews Arena turned 100 years old. When she opened in 1910, the arena brochure boasted, “It is the most complete home of sport in America — the largest, most complete and most elaborate temple erected for the devotees of sport in the world.”
Perhaps more widely known as the Boston Arena, Matthews Arena is home to Northeastern’s men’s and women’s hockey teams and men’s basketball team. The building is one of the bastions of the country’s sporting history and a spectator’s dream for live athletic contests.
The old ice house that gave birth to the Boston Bruins, the Boston Olympics and the New England Whalers also was the cradle of high school and college hockey in Greater Boston. The hockey programs at Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, MIT, Tufts and, of course, Northeastern all had their geneses at Matthews.
Tournaments that brighten New England winters such as the Beanpot and ECAC had their start at the Arena, as did competitive figure skating. In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan graced the ice at Matthews with an entourage that included Paul Wylie and Scott Hamilton, continuing an 85-year tradition of figure skating that numbers Sonja Henie, Dick Button and Tenley Albright.
The Matthews Arena chronology reads like a Who’s Who in American sports, and starts with groundbreaking on Oct. 11, 1909. Legendary pugilists Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and Joe Louis graced ringside, Finnish distance star Paavo Nurmi ran at the Arena in a BAA track meet, and Olympian Henie wove her magic-on-blades to phonograph music. The Boston Bruins played their first home game in the building and defeated the Montreal Maroons, 2-1, on Dec. 1, 1924. Less fortunate in their Arena debut were the Northeastern hockey Huskies, who lost, 2-1, to MIT on Jan. 17, 1930.
The Arena also has played host to such professional hockey teams as the Boston Olympics, Whalers, Tigers and Cubs. Even the great Babe Ruth, then a young left-handed pitcher for the Red Sox, was a frequent visitor to the Arena. The Sultan of Swat passed idle time in the winter by playing in hockey scrimmages with the Arena A.C. team. Chuck Connors, alias The Rifleman, jumped center and smashed the glass backboard in the first-ever Boston Celtics game on Nov. 5, 1946. And, the world famous Texas Rangers brought their rodeo in 1932, complete with outlaw horses and wild steers.
Through the years, the arena has hosted countless musical groups, including the first-ever appearance of the Motown Revue starring Marvin Gaye and the Supremes in 1962. Rock and rollers like Chubby Checker and Jerry Lee Lewis have graced arena stages. In the last two decades, Shirley Jones, Bob Dylan, Phish, Jimmy Eat World and hip hop artists Ludacris and The Roots have appeared.
Today, the stately Victorian lobbies that welcomed the modest and the mighty for nearly a century cater to the academic and athletic needs of Northeastern. Convocations, graduations and a large portion of the intramural docket are conducted at the Arena, whose walls once echoed with the podium entreaties of presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Past Arena dignitaries include Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhardt, James Michael Curley, Rev. Billy Graham, Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In the summer of 1993, the city of Boston and NU paid tribute to one of its heroes when it held funeral services at the arena for Reggie Lewis (Class of 1988).
The arena has survived two crippling fires, one in 1918 and another in 1948, to prosper as a stationary jewel of the community. Structurally, the Arena has undergone numerous renovations — most recently new seats and new locker rooms for the men’s and women’s varsity hockey teams.
Northeastern’s association with the arena covers over 80 years, since hockey became a varsity sport at the university in 1929. Husky basketball adopted the Arena as its home in 1981, although the Huskies played a game there in 1936, losing to Rhode Island. For decades, the arena has been home to countless scholastic hockey teams — particularly those in the Boston City League — and to its next-door neighbor, Wentworth Institute.
Neither time nor materiality has disrupted the daily patterns of arena life, though. In quiet afternoons, there are special hours set aside for free public skating. As the ancient edifice improves by age, her sensitivity to the common good remains as high as ever.
On the cover and above: Northeastern University’s Matthews Arena, the oldest indoor hockey arena still in use. (Courtesy Northeastern University Athletics)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: New Mexico State and New Orleans
• Tuesday: Nicholls and UNC Asheville
• Wednesday: UNC Greensboro and UNC Wilmington
• Thursday: North Dakota and Northeastern
• Friday: Northern Illinois and Northern Kentucky