For five decades, the RI Auditorium at 1111 North Main Street in Providence was the epicenter of RI hockey and home of the revered RI Reds. Throughout the mid 20th century, dozens of youngsters who grew up in proximity to the Arena, as it was called, became known as “rink rats”.
Most hung around doing odd jobs in turn for watching a Reds practice or, more often, the opportunity to get some skating time on arena ice. Others, on occasion, snuck in for a night skate in the pitch black. The ice time was meaningful. Many went on to star in high school, college and the pros. Thankfully, most paid it back, coaching the generations that followed.
Don Armstrong grew up right next door to the RI Auditorium. He was an All-State defensive standout on LaSalle Academy’s 1961 NE Championship team and co-captain the following year.
After graduation, Don served parts of three years in the Navy on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam era. After discharge, he earned a degree in Business Administration from Roger Williams College and took a teaching position at Bishop Hendricken High School.
During that time, Don helped start the fledgling hockey program alongside his former Ram co-captain, Roger Guillemette. Over 15 seasons he built the Hawks into a RI hockey power. Don followed with 10 years as head coach of the Roger Williams University hockey program.
In 1996, in recognition of his many years of service to RI’s youth and for saving a person from jumping off the Mt. Hope Bridge, Don was chosen to carry the Olympic torch on one of its legs through Rhode Island alongside his former star player and ex-Olympian, David Emma.
This is his story as the quintessential Auditorium neighborhood “rink rat.”
I can say this without hesitation or embarrassment: I am a born and bred North Main Street Arena rink rat! I grew up on Second Street in a house that was on the upper edge of the parking lot that was just off to the right of the Arena.
The roar of cheering that radiated from that building kept me awake many times all through my youth. I could tell the score of the game by the sounds that came out of those big ventilation fans up over the stands. No one in those days knew about second-hand smoke. When I had my bedroom window open to hear the crowd, I could smell it.
I remember wondering when I was very small what went on in that gigantic brick building. And I always knew that I was “home” when we would return from family day trips and I would see the RI Red Rooster on the facade of the building and the oversized letters saying only “Arena”.
As soon as I was old enough to start skating and playing hockey, my mission and that of all of the neighborhood kids was to sneak onto the ice in the Arena and play hockey “just like the pros.” When we were young, most of the time, we had to settle for the pond in the cemetery on the other side of North Main Street. We would walk home through the dark cemetery after playing hockey until sunset every day on cold winter nights, not afraid of ghosts and goblins, but talking about hockey and the Reds.
When the first ice machine arrived at the Auditorium in 1954 we called it “The Monster.” In those days, if you wanted to sneak on the ice when it wasn’t being used, it was a good idea to be polite and ask Mr. Rosa if it was ok. If he wasn’t around, Mr. Stinson, who was in charge of the boiler room, would most times say, “OK, but don’t damage the ice.”
Rosa lived far out in Pascoag and he would leave the Arena for home late afternoon. Stinson lived on Third Street next to the Arena. Before he would leave the rink on a “dead night” to go walking to his house, he opened a few windows in the back of the rink facing his house. We were quiet and skated in the dark and caused no problems. I suppose that the fact that Mr. Stinson’s son, Jack, joined us on some of these occasions was the reason why we never seemed to get in trouble!
Years later, as a junior at LaSalle, playing for the New England High School Hockey Championship on that very ice surface, I thought to myself, “Now I know what home ice advantage really means!” Some players who were on the ice for that tournament were a bag of nerves. For me I was “home.” We won it that year of ‘61 before a sold out and standing room crowd.
The first time that I went to a hockey game at the Arena was in the early 50’s when the Reds played on a Sunday afternoon against Syracuse. I was seven years old at the time. I can remember that at one point in the third period, the Reds were up 6-3. The fans were all over the Syracuse goalie, Gordie Bell – yelling, screaming and waving their handkerchiefs. I asked my father what was with the white handkerchiefs. He said that the crowd was signaling for Bell to give up. That day, I fell in love with the sport of ice hockey!
And I also fell in love with the atmosphere of “The Old Barn.” The Reds were great with all of the local kids and families. They were very generous with complimentary tickets. There weren’t many events held in there that I didn’t get to see. Being on the “free list” because we lived very close the Arena was a nice gift. Looking back, it was like a Christmas present every day when the Auditorium had something going on.
I remember the 1955-56 season. I don’t believe that I missed a single Reds home game. What a thrill being at all those games! On my birthday that year, I got my first pair of brand new hockey gloves. My hockey idol at that time was Ivan Irwin. Remember him? He was the great defenseman that wore jersey #2 for the Reds that had no palms in his gloves so that he might (?) have a better feel for the opposing players’ shirts. Yes, you guessed it! I cut the palms out so that I could get a better feel also. My mom and dad didn’t appreciate what I did – not one little bit!
That same spring, I remember the Reds coming back from Cleveland with the Calder Cup. It was a Sunday morning and there were thousands of fans waiting to greet the Reds as they returned victorious. This was such an exciting moment for all of us neighborhood kids. “Our” team was the best there was in the AHL! As the bus carrying the team approached the Arena, a cheer went up that filled the neighborhood. The bus seemed to acknowledge the crowd’s cheers by honking its horn repeatedly as it came up the hill from Frost Street onto Third and North Main. Jimmy Bartlett #7 was the player honking the bus horn.
I remember the good guys, but I also remember the bad guys. For me and my friends, the “baddest” of the bad guys of all the teams that played against the Reds from the mid ‘50s to mid ‘60s had to be the Cleveland Barons’ Fred Glover. As kids, we couldn’t figure out why he would come into Providence, start trouble (of course, it was always “them” who started the trouble) and then get beat up. It happened every time! Glover, today, remains one of the all-time point scorers and great players in AHL history.
As I said earlier, I played hockey for LaSalle Academy. High school hockey on Friday and Saturday evenings at the Auditorium was an institution in the state and a right of passage for all high school hockey players. There weren’t many diversions to distract us in those days. Certainly, there were no computers, video games, malls, cable TV – in fact, there was only black and white TV to watch. High school hockey at the Arena was a big thing for most teenagers.
On game nights in my day, almost every team in the state would play. There would be four games. Every game was competitive and every team had its own section in the stands. And that section never changed. The LaSalle fans always sat in the same place. When we played, we always knew where our crowd was. Our full dressed band would sometimes show up and fill a section.
Every other team had its own section, too. The Cranston kids would sit up in their spots, the Burrillville kids in theirs, and the Hope kids in theirs. One thing that I liked about the high school games in those days was that the fans would stay for all of the games.
Looking back at the whole experience of growing up next to the Auditorium, I can only say that I enjoyed every moment of it. When they tore the place down to create a parking lot for the nearby hospital, I made sure to get a brick to save from that great monument.
Even now, when I drive by the 1111 North Main Street location, I can still imagine and see the raging rooster preening on the peak of the façade – crowing that he was a RI Red and damned proud of it! In the late ‘50s, during the warm and sunny summer days, I would climb up to that peak.
I thank my parents for moving us from Pawtucket to a home next to the Arena. I also thank the RI Reds for being there.
By Don Armstrong