In the late sixties and early seventies, there were only a few stations on our television dials. Over our New England winters, three and sometimes four times a week, when 7 pm rolled around, households throughout the region tuned to UHF channel 38 in Boston. The Bruins were on and, through often grainy images, Bobby Orr was about to put on a show.
Orr’s emergence and brilliance during that era sparked an explosion of interest in hockey throughout New England, including rink-starved Rhode Island. Suddenly, communities everywhere wanted their own rink. For a fortunate few, there was someone around willing to do the work and the heavy lifting to help make those wishes come true. In East Greenwich, that person was Howie King.
J. Howard “Howie” King grew up on skates in the Cranston-Warwick area, a hotbed of hockey that turned out multitudes of talented players in the mid-century. He played at LaSalle Academy, alongside a number of teammates who would become lifelong friends, clients, Olympians, and contributors to fulfilling a future dream.
Howie’s influential friendships grew along with his successful advertising business and continued affection for the game. He and his brother, Eddie, were regulars on a weekly friendly game played first at the RI Auditorium and then at Brown when Meehan Auditorium opened. The roster included the likes of Ralph Warburton, Tom Army, Hank and Bob Coupe, Rod McGarry, Allan Soares, Butch Reynolds, Jack McGeough, Buster Clegg, and many more recognizable names in the hierarchy of RI’s hockey history.
In the 1960’s, Howie and Joan King moved to East Greenwich where they would settle and raise their five children – Jay, Lisa, Diane, Laurie and Steven. The bookend boys would inherit their father’s passion for the game and contribute in their owns ways to the region’s and our state’s hockey legacy.
Jay King recalls something not much larger than a frozen puddle across from the new high school as being the birthplace of what one might call ‘organized hockey’ in town. “During the late winter of 1970, we took advantage of the ice with a very small group of guys with sticks and a puck. The group quickly grew to about 30 players.
“Soon it was March,” Jay remembers, “and we were bummed that the ice had melted. So I called around to the new Thayer Arena in Warwick and the Cranston Vets rink to find out about available ice time. We got lucky because the high school and youth hockey seasons had just finished.”
The group locked up a late night slot and about twenty skaters glided onto the ice at Thayer, most of them on a regulation indoor rink for the very first time. They were hooked.
For the next month and a half and up until the off-season, the group rented ice at Thayer and Vets. “We learned that the new Dudley Richards rink in East Providence would remain open for the summer,” Jay recalled. “Eddie Woodcock, their manager, gave a us a regular time slot late on Friday nights throughout the summer. It was so much fun and so well attended that we decided to add a regular Tuesday afternoon to our get-togethers.” Jay’s father took notice.
That fall, Howie, along with a few other parents, formed the non-profit East Greenwich Hockey Club, Inc. and elected a slate of officers. Their initial objective was to organize an informal team for high school aged boys.
They secured an early morning hour at Thayer Arena for high schoolers on four weekdays and a 2-hour slot on Saturdays & Sundays for the younger kids. As the weeks went by, more and more skaters joined. The enthusiasm among parents and the community grew. Soon the number of players exceeded the available space in the off-peak time slots.
“My father had the dream of building a hockey rink in the area as far back as I can remember,” Jay said fondly.
Howie now felt a more urgent need for a rink to accommodate East Greenwich’s growing hockey program and looked into what it would take to make that happen. He put a plan together and then reached out to the community, as well as to close friends, advertising clients, and his hockey buddies. Soon he had 32 investors and they formed Mid-State Recreation, Inc.
Jay remembers his father once passing the intersection of Bald Hill and Centerville Roads and suggesting that it would be a great location for a hockey rink. But now that was becoming a high rent district.
Howie and his group turned their eyes to a 19-acre tract of land in East Greenwich owned by the Bowerman Brothers construction company. It was located at the northwestern corner of town, bordering the West Greenwich, Coventry, and West Warwick town lines. Directly off I-95, it was viewed as an ideal site for the rink.
A purchase price was struck with Bowerman, made more affordable with the condition of the Providence firm to be hired as the general contractor. The group hired International Ice Rink Consultants, run by Hank Coupe, one of Howie’s hockey pals and marketing clients, to engineer the ice making.
When the application and proposal for the skating rink and site development was presented to the Town of East Greenwich, the town determined that it did not have a proper zone for a recreational facility. Eight months later, a new zone was created and the $750,000 project was approved.
While the new zoning allowing the rink construction delighted Howie, the approval gave rise to a previously imagined vision many of the investors had for the property. That vision included the future addition of tennis courts, a community swimming pool, driving range, athletic fields, and summer camp components as parts of a more expansive complex once the rink was established and profitable.
In 1971, the players had petitioned the town’s school board for a varsity hockey program, but were turned down. During the re-zoning process, the group held a major open house at Thayer for families and students throughout the East Greenwich school system. Their purpose was to muster public support and town funding for a varsity high school hockey program. Hundreds attended. Soon after, the School Committee approved the funding for a varsity hockey team to compete in the 1972-73 RI Interscholastic League season.
In May of 1972, with financing and a mortgage secured through the RI Recreational Authority and Rhode Island Hospital Trust National Bank, the site was cleared and construction began. It progressed rapidly.
With the finish of the new arena still a few months, the varsity team took the ice for their first official game on November 14, 1972 against Davies Vocational at Adelard Arena, winning 2-1 on a goal by Colin Singleton off a shot by Jay King.
The new 32,000 sf Mid-State Arena opened on January 3, 1973, with friend and popular hockey figure Jim “Butch” Reynolds as the building’s manager. The Arena hosted its first high school hockey game that night with an SRO crowd of 800 fans in attendance. East Greenwich defeated Hope to win its inaugural game at its new rink. No one was more proud than Howie King.
In addition to being the home rink of the East Greenwich Avengers, Mid-State became home ice for Coventry High School and the RI Junior College Knights. However, the most interesting new out-of-town tenant became the University of Rhode Island’s club team. It was planned only to be their temporary home but their stay was longer than they and the rest of Rhode Island’s hockey and sports community had hoped.
In 1974, the RI State Board of Regents had given approval for a $3M ice forum to be built on URI’s Kingston campus with university officials soon to ask the regents for a $96,000 annual budget. The facility was to be named the Henry H. Mackal Forum for the benefactor who was donating $500,000 to the university. URI Athletic Director Maurice Zarchen proudly proclaimed that the facility would be ready by 1976 and the Rams would initially compete in Division II playing against teams like UConn, UMass and Merrimack. It never came to be.
Nevertheless, the Rams were a popular addition to the Arena during the 70’s, drawing enthusiastic and, sometimes, “wild fans” according to Jay.
Youth programs at Mid-State flourished from the outset as surrounding communities and municipalities as far away as Narragansett organized and ran their own youth programs at the rink. Beginning in the summer of 1973, Jay King, who ran the rink’s pro shop, helped run a hockey program with an enrollment of over 600 boys and girls. Men’s recreational leagues, private ice rentals, and public skating sessions kept the building buzzing.
Mid-State landed a plum in 1974 when it hosted the National Bantam Hockey Championships. It was the first USA Hockey-sanctioned national youth tournament ever hosted in the state. Teams from seven US regions competed – Seattle, Detroit, Lake Placid, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island.
A promoter by nature, Howie King also created several annual events at the Arena, including a Holiday Invitational Tournament hosted each year by East Greenwich High. And there was no off-season. For a time, a 16-team summer circuit of high school squads was formed by former Friar great Larry Kish at Adelard Arena in Woonsocket with rotating games at Mid-State and former Brown and RI Reds defenseman, Allan Soares, then the rink’s manager, at the helm.
Meanwhile, fateful events were happening that would have a long-lasting impact on Mid-State’s fortunes. A 1974 oil embargo sent utility costs skyrocketing. Then the local economy took a hit with the closing of the Quonset and Davisville Naval bases. Thousands of local employees lost their jobs. The combination resulted in higher rental fees for a severely depleted market.
Jay laments, “In 1978, another oil embargo increased energy costs yet again and a new municipal rink opening in West Warwick split the market for ice time.”
All the while, coach Carl Swanson’s East Greenwich hockey team, which was no more than a bunch of kids skating on a frozen puddle just a few years earlier, had become a competitive force.
“Avenger hockey games had become the ‘go-to’ events on Fridays and Saturdays. The house was always packed and the atmosphere was legendary back in the day,” according to Jay. The team would go on to capture five Suburban or Met B state crowns over Swanson’s ten years behind the bench.
Interestingly, the one person who achieved the greatest fame skating at Mid-State and had one of the closest relationships to the rink only played hockey there until middle school. Steven King, Howie King’s youngest, was a toddler when the rink first opened. He played in the EG hockey program until Mid-State closed and later moved on to make a name for himself with the Edgewood Hawks when they captured the 1987 National Midget Championship. He would go on to star at Bishop Hendricken, Brown and the NHL before helping to propel the Providence Bruins to their first American Hockey League championship in 1999.
By 1978, with Howie investing more personal money into the operation and Jay King now serving as rink manager, the new Our Lady of Providence hockey team came to call Mid-State its home ice. In quick succession, the Skating Club of Rhode Island relocated to Mid-State. Then the Providence Figure Skating Club took up residence along with East Providence High School as the same issues that were now plaguing Mid-State had already doomed their home at the Dudley Richards rink in East Providence. Along, too, came the Dudley Richards’ Zamboni, which Jay used at times in tandem with the rink’s own machine to speed up the resurfacing between periods of high school games.
Operations continued through 1980 with Harvey Bennett and Ross Brooks hockey clinics and new tournaments added to the schedules. However, despite all of the additional revenues and the many improvements made to the complex to further its appeal, the now tripled energy costs and high property taxes became overwhelming. The Mid-State shareholders, along with a consulting specialist, devised a plan to save the rink for the community. It was a plan that would require concessions from all parties.
The plan was presented at a meeting of representatives from the RI Recreational Authority, RI Hospital Trust, the Town of East Greenwich and Mid-State. It included a commitment of additional investment by Mid-State’s shareholders to maximize energy efficiency and an agreement to gift the building to the town over a pre-determined period. The RI Recreational Authority and the bank indicated they were ready to practically forgive the loan with a couple of community-minded requirements.
East Greenwich was asked to allow the electrical costs to be billed through the town, thus enabling the rink to be eligible for discounted municipal rates. They were asked to forgive back property taxes and grant a lower tax rate while the group converted to non-profit status. The town said “No”!
In April of 1982 the skaters said goodbye to the ice at Mid-State and the rink foreclosed four months later. The hockey and skating programs scattered. Some found new homes. The high school moved to the new West Warwick municipal rink. Other programs discontinued or slowly dissolved. The Recreational Authority took ownership of the property, which is now occupied by the RI Dept. of Transportation, used as a hub for highway maintenance.
“Looking back, I’m sure my father would do it all over again,” smiles Jay. “There was a sense of local pride and an air of excitement every time we walked into the rink.
“The closing was a great disappointment to my father,” he continued. “Disappointing to us, his family, as well. Howie never got to fully realize what we’ve experienced – the great positive impact his efforts made in the community and the priceless, lasting memories they created for countless players, skaters, and families because of Mid-State.”
“They took our rink, but they didn’t take our hockey. After all these years, the student athletes still play this great game at East Greenwich High.”