Karl Lindholm: Good times and puck history at Rockefeller Center North
Driving down Route 125, College Street, as I do most days, I noticed a temporary structure had gone up in the middle of the Middlebury College campus.
It’s a “winterized tent” where “students can hang out” in this pandemic-compromised winter, with an adjacent skating rink. As President Laurie Patton explained in the Independent on Feb. 18: “We are embracing cold weather and everything wonderful about Vermont.”
Do the students making use of this space for social and recreational purposes understand they are on historic, if not hallowed, college ground?
The scene transports me back to the winter of 1980 when I was a young dean working in the Dean of Students Office with Dean Erica Wonnacott. We had a problem that winter.
Our problem was the weather. There was no snow, in the middle of January. None, a dry winter. The previous two winters had also been pretty dry, lousy skiing. The College Snow Bowl in Hancock had not yet invested in snowmaking machines (the first were installed in 1984).
Howard Kelton, manager of the Snow Bowl, said in the Campus (student newspaper), “I have never seen a winter as bad as this one.”
We deans had come to believe, through experience, that there was a causal relationship between the snow conditions and “cabin fever,” which took the form of wild parties with lots of alcohol and attendant problems.
(It surprises you, I am sure, that students’ alcohol use is sometimes excessive — or at least it was in those days.)
If we could just keep the inmates physically occupied, our thinking was, they would come back from afternoons at the Snow Bowl, their youthful energy sapped, do the reading for their Winter Term classes for three or four hours after dinner, and blissfully drift off to dreamland.
“Rockefeller Center” was our solution to this problem, at least in part.
The story is that the Dean of the College Steven Rockefeller had a “Eureka” moment skating with his daughter on Dead Creek.
He suggested flooding an area on campus for a skating rink. McCullough Field was chosen because it had been the site of the outdoor Middlebury Hockey Rink from the 1920s to 1949, when the field house was erected.
McCullough was the original gymnasium, built in 1912, right smack in the middle of campus.
The Campus reported: “The rink — affectionately dubbed Rockefeller Center by campus wits — has been greeted with enthusiasm by students.”
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Rockefeller Center was a lively hub of student outdoor activity in the winter. A series of mild winters, continuing till this day, have discouraged efforts to maintain a rink in that spot in the 2000s.
Student Life Dean Matt Longman graduated from Middlebury in 1989 and has worked in Student Affairs at the college since 1993. “We looked forward to seeing the ice go down each year in front of McCullough,” he recalled. “I played pickup hockey games with friends on many late afternoons after classes ended.
“In the ’90s, we had broomball tournaments in the evenings, after the college provided lighting for the rink.”
I had a perch in Old Chapel, which looked right out on the rink, and remember some wild intramural broomball games and informal hockey games. Winter Carnival featured a series of events and competitions there, called Northern Lights.
Rockefeller Center and broomball, however, are not why that space is historic ground.
From the very first days of athletics at Middlebury, beginning in the 1880s with baseball and then football at the turn of the century, that space just west of Old Stone Row (the three original buildings on campus) was the athletic grounds and the locus of the first intercollegiate competitions.
Ice hockey was organized in 1922 and games were played there until 1949, when it moved indoors to Memorial Field House. In its first season, the hockey team made a “noble start,” according to the Kaleidoscope (yearbook), despite losing all three games. By 1928, the team was a powerhouse, winning all six of its games.
The Middlebury College Archives has many striking photos of outdoor hockey excitement, with students bundled against the cold cheering the team on from the sidelines.
Bill Beaney, Middlebury men’s hockey coach from 1986 to 2015, fondly recalls conversations with George “Dud” Phinney, Middlebury class of ’37, about his hockey exploits. For many years, Dud was the athletic director at MUHS and the golf pro at the Middlebury course.
“Games would start on a full sheet of ice that would deteriorate as the afternoon wore on,” Dud related to Beaney. “Some of the rink would be in the shade, from the shadow of McCullough Gym, and the other end in the sun.
“Some games,” Dud told Bill, “you might have to move the goal and finish the game on a half sheet where there was still shade. In those days you had to adapt your game to the condition of the ice, and the weather that day!”
During the breaks between periods in the games, students would clear the ice with 3-4-foot-wide “scrapers,” and shovel the collected snow into buckets, and the game would go on.
Hockey moved indoors in 1949 when the Memorial Field House was built. Actually, rebuilt. As David Bain in “The College on the Hill” writes, “The building, originally standing at an air base in Rome, N.Y., was dismantled and trucked to Middlebury for rebuilding.”
For the first years indoors, the ice was still natural and was maintained in similar ways to the outdoor rink: scraping and shoveling by hand. To make new ice between periods, two students pushed a 55-gallon drum of water with a spigot that sent water through a pipe, which extended from this jerry-rigged device. Artificial ice was installed in 1954. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the college bought a Zamboni-type ice resurfacer.
The history of ice hockey since its mid-20th-century outdoor origins will have to be told at another time. It’s a marvelous history, with seven national championships under Beaney on the men’s side — and for the women, under Coach Bill Mandigo, three national championships and 10 NESCAC titles since 2001 when the league tournament was introduced.
I’m old enough to remember skating outside all winter long growing up in Lewiston, Maine, a hockey town (though I ultimately preferred basketball in a warm gym).
The first time I skated indoors was when I came to Middlebury as a student in the 1960s.
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