A live turkey tied to a goalpost … the famous “zip code” speech and the infamous money on the table … a geyser in the visitors’ locker room during a national championship game …
If you look at the nondescript exterior of UMass-Lowell’s Tully Forum, you’d never guess the oft-bizarre history that lurks within.
On the outside, it reminds you of NYPD Blue‘s Andy Sipowicz — gritty, blue-collar and a tad on the ugly side when you get right down to it. But penetrate that exterior and start sifting through the legends and you instead get the crazy-as-a-bedbug Jim Carrey — one saah-mokin’, allll-riiiighty-then madcap zoo of a barn.
On Jan. 23, the River Hawks played their last game in the building, a 2-2 tie with Providence. On the 27th, they opened its replacement, the justly-hyped, 6,496-seat Paul E. Tsongas Arena.
For recent converts to River Hawk hockey — those who have never met the Jim Carrey side — the switch simply represents a chance to move into a wonderful arena that offers that time-honored real estate adage: location, location, location. Tully Forum is located six miles from the school; the Tsongas Arena is in the heart of the campus.
But old-timers who have met the face behind Tully Forum’s mask know that the Tsongas Arena may never match its predecessor’s vivid history.
The Turkey with the Trots
Allll riiiighty then.
If someone is crazier than a bedbug, does is make sense to examine his ancestors?
Of course. Especially if the ancestors are even more gonzo than the progeny.
Onward, then, to a Feb. 4, 1978, game held at Skate 3 in Tyngsboro, Lowell’s home rink prior to the move to Tully Forum for the 1980-81 season.
For some time, the University of Lowell (as it was then called before merging with other schools and becoming UMass-Lowell) had cast envious stares down Route 495 toward its more successful Division II neighbor, Merrimack College. Merrimack had just won its third ECAC Division II championship and would, later that season, crush its opposition in the first NCAA Division II championships, defeating Mankato State 6-1 in the semifinal game and Lake Forest 12-2 in the final.
“They were what we wanted to become,” says Bill Riley, Lowell’s colorful coach during those years. “We could never seem to catch them.”
Merrimack had dominated the series, winning 11 out of 12 games. Obsessed with the Warriors, Riley had personally scouted their last three games in search of weaknesses.
“Every game I went to, one of their defensemen got hurt,” says Riley. “So I was licking my chops figuring that this was our year. I think they played us with three healthy defensemen.”
On the verge of a breakthrough, Riley pulled out all the stops.
“At the time, we had a fan support group called The Wild Men,” he remembers. “The manager of my team was also the president of The Wild Men. They used to like to get things rocking and rolling.
“It was around Thanksgiving and the manager kept sending Thanksgiving pictures to the Merrimack goalie in his dormitory. The pictures were of turkeys and feathers with the goalie’s face superimposed on top.
“So I gave him twenty bucks and told him to go up into New Hampshire and get me a live turkey and we’d tie it to the net when Merrimack came onto the ice. The goalie would get the message.
“They tied the turkey to the goalpost, but the minute it touched the ice, it passed out or something. That wasn’t the show I wanted to see. It wasn’t running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
“Meanwhile, all it did was keep going the bathroom all over the ice. There was [excrement] everywhere in the crease. So now the Merrimack players had to go over there and scrape the stuff off.
“This girl, an animal rights advocate, ran onto the ice and untied the turkey and started holding onto him and clutching him to her chest. Meanwhile the turkey is still going to the bathroom all over her.”
The outrageous prank, however, backfired.
“We outshot them something like three to one because they were so weak on defense,” says Riley, “but wouldn’t you know, they still tied us, 3-3. It was all our own fault because the goalie was damned if he was going to let the puck in the net.”
A postscript to the story occurred at a practice the next week when two men showed up and flashed a badge at Riley.
“You the coach here?” they asked. “You Bill Riley?”
“Yeah,” he answered.
“Well, we’ve got a live turkey down at the dog pound,” they said. “You’ve got to get it out of there.”
“Oh, that’s not my turkey,” replied Riley. “That’s [Merrimack coach] Tom Lawlor’s turkey.”
The two men shook their heads and walked away.
The Broken Fist
On Dec. 2, 1978, still playing out of Skate 3, Lowell hosted Colby College. The Chiefs led in the game, but kept taking penalties and eventually lost because of Colby power-play goals.
“We were playing like a bunch of punks,” says Riley. “I was so mad, I hit the locker room door as hard as I could to prove a point. Sometimes, you role play as a coach. I could even put tears in my eyes to emphasize a point. But this time I didn’t have to role play. I was really mad.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew I’d broken something.
“The next day, I walked in and had it in a cast. I was hiding it inside my sports jacket. For three-quarters of the pre-game meal, I looked like Napoleon.”
Of course, there was no real hiding it.
“It was pretty embarrassing,” says Riley. “I’d go to the bank teller and she’d say, ‘What happened to your arm?’
“‘Oh, you don’t want to know.’
“‘No, tell me, what happened to your arm?’
“‘Well, I punched a locker room door.’
“And she’d give me that look, like, ‘Oh, how childish, how juvenile, how immature.’”
But Riley had made his point. After opening with three wins and four losses prior to the broken fist, the Chiefs posted a 24-2-0 record the rest of the way and won a Division II national championship, their first of three in four years.
“Those were the things I’d do to try to get the point across,” he says with a laugh. “Half of it was smoke and mirrors, but you can do that when you’re younger.”
Get Your Red Hot Lobsters
The school bought the Forum, originally constructed in 1964, with money appropriated by the state legislature, primarily at the behest of State Senator Joe Tully. The rink, however, was “a pig pen” and no money had been provided for its renovation.
There was no heat, no hot water for showers, a 40-foot hole in the roof covered by a tarpaulin, and a chain-link fence for glass in the end zone. Players’ longjohns would freeze in the locker rooms.
Although a couple years later, State Senator Phil Shea was able to push through renovations appropriations of $500,000 for two years straight, Lowell supporters initially were on their own. Friends of the athletes, tradespeople and others in the community spent their weekends in a labor of love.
Riley and his assistant coaches, Gary Bishop and Mike Geragosian, built the boards themselves as part of a federal jobs-training program in which the carpenter doing the training had no one else to teach.
“We didn’t get paid for it, but we had this guy to take us along,” remembers Riley. “There was nobody in the program, so we did all the work ourselves.”
Although the boards surrounding the 185-by-85 foot ice surface — renowned for its tiny neutral zone — turned out quite nicely, the three coaches weren’t always so successful.
“There’d be a time after we painted the bleachers when people would come up and say they had paint on their pants or on their blouse,” says Riley. “We’d just plead the fifth. We were painting the things in November and it was still humid and cool. The damn paint never took.”
The building slowly began to take form. What it initially lacked in aesthetics, it made up for in other ways. When hosting the Division II NCAA championship one year, for example, Riley’s people used the hot dog bin to boil lobsters in the afternoon for the NCAA committee members. The following year, Riley was promptly asked if he was ready to host the NCAAs again.
The Geyser in the Locker Room
With renovations incomplete, all the piping was exposed under stands — where one could also buy beer and wine — and in the locker rooms. This fact had a bizarre and comic impact on the Mar. 14, 1981, D-II national championship game against Plattsburgh State.
“They had a big kid named Poulin, who was a real force,” says Riley. “He was a nice guy, but I knew he was a hothead. So we sent a defenseman after him every period to hit him, hit him, hit him, and get his mind off the game and into the physical part of it.
“And the kid went for it. Oh man, did he go for it.”
After several penalties and a misconduct, Plattsburgh State coach Herb Hammond sent Poulin to the locker room before the second period was even over. Whether Hammond was going to summon him for the third period is unclear, but the combustible Poulin entered the locker room in a rage.
“The kid was so mad, he starting pulling the pipes off the wall,” says Riley. “Eventually, he pulled off the water pipes. The rink manager came over to me while the second period was still going and said, ‘Listen, Billy, that big forward Poulin from Plattsburgh pulled the pipes right out of the wall. There’s water spraying all over their locker room. What do you want me to do?’
“I said, ‘You know what I want you to do. Don’t do a thing until the third period. Then turn the water off.’
“Sure enough, the Plattsburgh team was going into the third period for the national championship and they had water spraying all over their locker room during intermission. They probably went in the showers to stay dry.”
Lowell won, 5-4, for its second national championship. No one remembers how soggy the Plattsburgh State uniforms were in the third period.
The Forum’s Greatest Game
Two years later, on Mar. 5, 1983, Lowell hosted the D-II ECAC championships and sold 4,250 tickets for its title game against Babson, despite the building’s 3,200-seat capacity.
“People just wanted to get in for the game,” says Riley. “We had, literally, people eight-deep at the glass.”
When a few complained and asked for their money back, the ticket-taker consulted Riley on what to do. The coach’s response fit perfectly the tenor of the times.
“For crying out loud,” Riley told the ticket-taker, “we’re a carnival here. Whoever wants to leave, give them their money back. The tent’s always open. Let ‘em in and let ‘em out.”
The few who left soon regretted it, however, because the two teams battled into triple overtime. With the championship on the line in the third OT, Lowell goaltender Dana Demole stopped Fran Murray on two breakaways 30 seconds apart. Jim O’Brien, a freshman like Demole, then carried it down the other end and scored to give the Chiefs the 3-2 win.
The “Zip Code” Speech
With their Division II national championships under their belts, the ULowell Chiefs had at least reached parity with their neighbor, Merrimack. This fueled the rivalry, as did the Teapot Tournament — a D-II variation on the Beanpot that involved Lowell, Merrimack, Salem State and either Bowdoin or Holy Cross playing at the Boston Garden.
No matter what other teams were on the schedule, a chance to beat Merrimack was something to be savored. For no one was this more true than for Riley, who was more than ready to make sure that his kids were focused.
A master of the locker room speech, he had once been asked by the on-ice officials, who could clearly hear him in their adjoining room through holes in the walls that the pipes went through, if they could tape-record his comments for use at their year-end banquet.
This one time against Merrimack, though, he outdid even himself.
“I was ranting and raving,” he says. “I got to the end of of my vociferous dialogue and said, ‘I hate Merrimack. I hate their school. I hate the color of their uniforms. I hate the Indian chief on their shirts…
“‘I even hate their #$%@& zip code.’”
One didn’t even have to know that the two schools’ zip codes differed by only one digit to appreciate that one.
“I had just run out of things to hate,” he says laughing.
“What you have to understand,” he adds with a straight face, “is that we had always looked up to Merrimack, so what I said, I said affectionately.”
A Player Introduction for the Ages
In 1983-84, the Chiefs moved up to Division I play, a choice that was not universally supported within the administration. Some of the over-my-dead-body types that Riley defeated in the process would later exact their revenge, but at the time, the team fared reasonably well. When one year later, Hockey East commenced its first season of play, Lowell finished fifth in the seven-team league. In two more years, it would finish second.
With the move to Division I came new potential rivals. One of them was Boston College, a powerhouse that would finish first in Hockey East in all but one of the first seven seasons.
After a bad loss to BC one evening, Riley looked for revenge back at the Forum. He typed up a different format for player introductions than the one Hockey East used at the time, handed it to BC coach Len Ceglarski and told him that it was the standard Tully Forum protocol.
Much like the format used today, the entire team would stay by the nets, the starting six would skate to the blue line when introduced, followed then by the rest of the team, which would stand on the blue line for the national anthem.
Meanwhile, Riley instructed his starting six to each race out at 100 miles an hour and stop on a dime. The first one would stop at the blue line. The second, five feet beyond the blue line. The third, at the red line and the fourth five feet past the red line. The fifth and sixth players would race out at 100 miles an hour and stop right in the BC players’ faces on the opposing blue line.
“It was a show,” laughs Riley. “What a show! There weren’t any fights, but everyone was bumping chests, that macho, in-your-face kind of thing. Poor Lenny, he didn’t know what was happening, but I could see [assistant coach Steve] Cedorchuk on the boards and was he mad!”
Cedorchuk had even more reason to be angry by game’s end. A Riley prank had once again paid off with a win.
Money on the Table, Trouble on the Way
Another new rival, Boston University, factored into yet another Riley stunt, one which would eventually lead to him stepping down. He had played on the same line at BU with Terrier coach Jack Parker, so Parker always made sure his troops were jacked up to face Lowell. As a result, the Chiefs, who had enjoyed plenty of success against the first-place BC Eagles, couldn’t seem to beat BU.
On one fateful night, however, the Chiefs led by a goal going into the third period and seemed to have the Terriers on the ropes.
“Unlike a lot of schools, the university never fed the guys after the game,” says Riley of a practice that has since been corrected. “They were just supposed to go out on their own even though they hadn’t had anything to eat since before four o’clock in the afternoon.
“So I gave a pep talk between the second and third period. I threw down a couple hundred dollars and said, ‘Listen, if we win this game, the party’s on me.’
“I looked at it as a chance for them to go out as a group and sit down and savor the victory.”
Eventually, however, the incident was used to force Riley out as part of an NCAA investigation.
“They wanted to say that I was paying the kids, but it was just that the pizza was on me,” says Riley. “Sometimes, the pioneers are the ones with the arrows in their backs. The president that we have here now, and was there at the time, never wanted us to go Division I. I got a lot of things here in spite of his wishes. Even when you beat your boss, you still lose down the road.”
Breaking Through Against BU
Riley’s successor in 1991, Bruce Crowder, possessed one of the game’s sharpest wits, but was not especially predisposed to continuing Riley’s lineage of madcap antics. A sense of humor was one thing. Tying a live turkey to a goalpost was quite another.
Despite the change in decorum, though, some things stayed the same.
Namely, Boston University.
If BU had been a thorn in the side of Riley’s teams of the eighties, the thorn became even longer and sharper in the nineties. The Terriers, arguably the team of the decade, continued to dominate the series.
One of a few minor breakthroughs occurred, however, on Nov. 5, 1994. Lowell, which had begun using the nickname River Hawks that season to replace the politically incorrect Chiefs, took BU into overtime tied 7-7.
That year, Hockey East had adopted the shootout as a crowd-pleasing end to games still tied after the five-minute overtime. The shootout did not carry the weight of a full win — a conventional win earned five points in the standings, while shootout wins and losses garnered three and two points, respectively, and the NCAA ignored all shootout results.
The crowd-pleasing addition did, however, give Lowell’s Greg Bullock the opportunity to score what might be the second-most amazing goal ever — a tip of the fedora to Michigan’s Mike Legg and his lacrosse-style tally as being all alone at number one.
Eye-catching goals had held a place in Lowell lore ever since one Skate 3 game on Jan. 15, 1976, against Bridgewater State. With both benches at that rink located on the same side of the ice, a goaltender being pulled for an extra attacker during a second-period delayed penalty actually had to cross over the red line into the offensive zone to get to the bench.
On this night, the puck came to the Bridgewater State goalie as he neared the red line. He not only fired it on net, he put it past Mason Leggee for one of the most stunning achievements in the sport.
In subsequent years, stars like Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Brian Leetch, Tony Amonte and Paul Kariya — not to mention the greatest of them all, number four Bobby Orr, in an old-timers game — had chances to show their creativity on the Forum ice.
But none matched Bullock on this night. When it came Bullock’s turn in the shootout, he skated in on Derek Herlofsky, performed a 360-degree pirouette and put the puck past the befuddled Terrier goaltender.
“Even the BU players stood up and cheered,” remembers Chaz Scoggins, long-time beat writer for The Lowell Sun.
The final breakthrough against the Terriers, however, took place at the Forum on Jan. 27, 1996. The River Hawks were hosting Boston University one night after upsetting the Terriers 8-6 at Walter Brown Arena. The defending national champion Terriers had entered the weekend ranked #1 in the country with an 18-1-3 record. Even more importantly, by that time they held a 34-2-3 stranglehold in the 12-year history of the series.
Almost no one had thought the River Hawks could go down to Walter Brown Arena and topple BU in its own barn, but they had. Could they actually complete the sweep over such a dominating opponent? The fans flocked to the Forum to find out for themselves.
Although the attendance was officially listed as 3,215 in deference to the fire marshal, somewhere in the vicinity of 4,000 fans entered the building. As Crowder puts it, “The crowd was hanging from the rafters. It was just a tremendous atmosphere.”
That atmosphere reached a fever pitch as the final seconds ticked off and the crowd’s roar became deafening. With a 5-4 triumph, the River Hawks had accomplished the unthinkable. Later that season, they would advance to within one game of the NCAA Final Four for the second time in three years.
The River Hawk Loses His Head
For all its good points, however, the Tully Forum remained the right building in the wrong place.
“I’ve always said that if they could just helicopter it up and land it on campus, that would just be fantastic for the school,” says Crowder.
Instead, it sat six miles from the campus. Students, who might naturally migrate to an on-campus rink as if drawn by gravity, got to the Forum games in disappointing numbers.
To make up for this, the school reached out to the community, and to youngsters in particular. For a pittance, “Youngstars” gained free admittance to all home games, River Hawk merchandise and special camps or tournaments. These fans of the future brought their parents while also lining up at the concession stand for french fries, pizza and nachos.
At one such Youngstars camp, the Forum experienced perhaps its final comic moment. Several Lowell players skated on the ice with the kids, with some even opting to don the costume of the blue River Hawk mascot.
“Marty Fillion was dressed up as the River Hawk,” remembers Tim Whitehead, who succeeded Crowder when he left for Northeastern. “Marty went down and did a breakdance, but then his Hawk head flew off.
“Marty was so embarrassed he had to leave the ice. He couldn’t even come back out. Somebody else had to go use the costume.
“We had some real little kids there, so I acted really outraged and said, ‘There must be an imposter! Where’s the real River Hawk? Wait till the real Hawk finds out about this!’”
Onward to the Future
Over the course of 18 seasons — and many a Jim Carrey moment — at the Tully Forum, Lowell teams posted a 168-111-20 record. Its chapter in UMass-Lowell’s book has ended. The politicians, Lord help us, are now involved deciding the Forum’s fate. It will either be demolished or, according to the latest proposal, leased to the town of Chelmsford for use in youth and schoolboy hockey.
Meanwhile, the Tsongas Arena moves front and center with its on-campus location, exceptional design and, for the Jan. 27 opener at least, sold out 6,496 seats.
In addition to attracting more fans in general, and students in particular, the Tsongas Arena could also have a significant impact on recruiting. For years, the inconvenience of driving to practice every day has been used against Lowell in recruiting.
“When you ask our student-athletes, it’s not that big a deal,” says Whitehead. “It’s no different than in juniors or the pros. You drive to the rink in pro hockey. Two roommates jump in the car and go to the rink. But people have made a lot out of it, in terms of negative recruiting, and sometimes it did affect us.
“We’ll have to wait and see how important the facilities are to the students. I doubt it will be the reason people come here. But I am confident that it will contribute positively to the decision that student-athletes are making.
“And the one thing I can guarantee is that once they’re here, the facilities will, without question, contribute to the quality of the students’ lives. That’s a guarantee.”
And so, for Lowell fans, it’s a fond adieu to the Tully Forum and a welcome embrace of the Tsongas Arena.
Let the good times roll.
Many thanks to coaches Bill Riley, Bruce Crowder and Tim Whitehead, Tully Forum rink manager Don Lampron, Lowell Sun beat writer Chaz Scoggins, WLLH play-by-play announcer Bob Ellis, Sports Information Director Jim Seavey, skate-sharpener Bill Wheeler and the many fans I’ve talked to. This article could not have been completed without all of you.