PITTSFIELD -- Neil Eddy played pond hockey with his buddies near a branch of the Housatonic River on the west side of the city. Part of that collection of Pittsfield youths included the Fitzgerald brothers, Gene and Bob. But when they took those pond skills through the doors of the Pittsfield Boys Club and to the rink on the third floor in 1962, it paved the way for a great run at Pittsfield High just a handful of years hence.
Eddy, a 1969 PHS graduate, joined the Fitzgerald brothers as the nucleus of teams that were both successful and exciting. In 1968, the Generals won the Berry Division, considered to be the toughest in Western Massachusetts. PHS coach Carl Moffatt had directed many of the players in the Boys Club House League.
"It was great to be involved with youth hockey at the Club," Eddy said. "We had been skating on the river and ponds and at Clapp Park when they flooded it. But the Club House League gave us some structure. And all the coaches, people like Don Troy, you can't say enough about all they did."
This hockey season at what is not formally called the Boys & Girls Club of Pittsfield marks the 50th anniversary of the rink. The climb to the third floor befuddled and exhausted fans of visiting teams for years. Elevators are now in place for those not inclined or unable to take on the vertical challenge.
Jim Mooney, the former executive director of the Boys Club, said the idea for the rink was the vision of both then Executive Director Fred Fahey and longtime youth sports activist and Dalton resident Gib Kittredge. A youth tournament that bears the Kittredge name has taken place at the rink for more than 30 years.
"Basketball was the main thrust at the Club," Mooney said. "But Fred had been a good athlete and he wanted to expand what the Club offered. So, Fred and Gib organized a fundraising drive and with help from General Electric the rink was built."
But the third floor? That was tricky, Mooney recalled.
"Oh sure. We had the day when a crane had to lift the Zamboni up to the floor. We needed to remove the back wall and then seal the wall after we lifted the machine up there."
Recalled Moffatt, who said the fundraiser actually preceded the idea for a rink, "That fundraiser went so far over the goal, about $600,00 I believe, that Gib and Fred decided to go for the rink. At the time it was the only artificial ice in the county."
The first game on that rink, Moffatt said, was a free-of-charge contest between Williams College and American International College in Springfield.
"It actually took place right near the end of 1961," Moffatt said. "The Club just wanted to try it out. But we really got rolling right after the new year. We had about 200 kids that first year and by the early 1970s, we were up to about 600."
It was, said Moffatt, quite a bargain for a young boy.
"All they needed to participate in the House League was to buy a $1 Boys Club badge. We had House League games six nights a week and I would hold a clinic on the other night."
In its infancy, the dimensionally cozy rink looked much different than it does now. The bleachers were not yet in place and instead of the GE designed, built and donated Lexan glass that makes up the perimeter, the players were penned in by nothing more than strong coarse wire.
And it became obvious right away that it would not be a year-round facility.
"The humidity in the building was too much," Mooney said. "Pipes dripped and we might have flooded the floor below."
The House League and travel teams continued to flourish and peaked during the late 1970s. But economics, demographics and other factors began to chisel away at the fabric of those programs. Today there is no House League, something current Executive Director Peter Bell hopes to be able to bring back in an attempt to keep the rink a viable and credible money maker.
"Hockey definitely took a hit," said Bell, who noted that figure skating and speed skating clubs also continue to use the ice. "To bring back the House League would allow kids to skate with teams twice a week but not have to commit to travel teams."
Bell admitted the rink is cost intensive and needs to be in use more than it is now.
"We're trying to put together a game plan," he said. "We want the rink to continue to be available to the city for years to come."
A reminder that Pittsfield native and 1973 St. Joe graduate Dr. Peter Drennan will be speaking on Saturday afternoon at 3 at the Berkshire Athenaeum about his recently published book "Sixteen: An American Hockey Story." Drennan, who lives in Longmeadow, tells the story of his youth hockey days at the Pittsfield Boys Club, his state championship season at St. Joe and his year at The Hill, a preparatory school in Pottstown, Pa.
The free event will take place in the downstairs auditorium and is open to the public. A limited number of Drennan's books will be available.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.