RI's Hockey History - The Story of Tom and Don Mellor and the Library that Was Once a Hockey Rink

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Black and white photo of a hockey game. Rhody Radio logo banner at the bottom of the image featuring the text "Rhody Radio" and an illustration of the state of Rhode Island wearing headphones.

Speaker 1: You're listening to Rhody Radio Rhode Island Library Radio Online.

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Speaker 2: This episode of Rhody Radio is brought to you by your local library's Library of Things. Did you know that your library has more than just books and movies? Libraries across Rhode Island lend out all sorts of unconventional items. You can borrow fishing gear, ukuleles, tools, games and puzzles, telescopes, and more. Whether you want to try a new hobby or keep the kids occupied, Ocean State Libraries have what you need. Contact your local library to find out what's in their Library of Things.

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Stefanie: Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, whenever you choose to listen to the Rhody Radio podcast. I hope you're having a wonderful day. I'm Stefanie Blankenship, director of the North Providence Union Free Library joining you today here at the North Providence Arena, a lost arena of Rhode Island, currently the building and home of the North Providence Union Free Library. I have some interesting history of this building as a hockey arena. I'm also going to be joined by Tom Mellor, a Rhode Island Hockey Hall of Famer, and his father, Don Mellor, who had a great influence in the history of hockey here in Rhode Island.

A lot of this information comes from an article by Mark Divver from September 29th, 2020.

"In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Providence had the Rhode Island Auditorium and Meehan Auditorium. The Ice Bowl was on the Providence/Cranston line. There was a Levy Rink in Burrillville, Adelard Arena in Woonsocket, and [00:02:00] St. George's School rink in Middletown. Iceland, an outdoor rink, was in Seekonk, and that was it. The story of the North Providence Arena recalls a time when hockey's popularity exploded in Rhode Island and all around New England.

Captivated by the success of Bobby Orr in the Boston Bruins, every kid wanted to play. Public officials and private groups went to work in Cranston, East Providence, Warwick, East Greenwich, North Smithfield, and North Providence to get rinks built and meet the growing demand for ice. In North Providence, partners Ernest W. Audet, Joseph DeAngelis, Ronald DeBellis, and Michael J. Scarpellino persuaded the Town Council to let them put up a building on municipal lands on the main thoroughfare, Mineral Spring Avenue. Mayor Mancini and the longtime Recreation Director Lou Cimini also the coach of the LaSalle Academy hockey team, were ardent consultants to and supporters of the venture.

The Town Council granted partners a 30-year lease on the land. The rink was built at a bargain-basement cost of $750,000 according to The Providence Journal, and opened in time for the 1973-74 high school season.

In particular, the fortunes of the North Providence High School team would dramatically change. No longer would practices for the self-proclaimed "roving gypsies" take place in early morning hours on school days. Coach Chuck Gaffney's chargers now took to the practice ice next door to classes and right after school. Student body support and local interest dramatically increased, as did the attendance of loyal followers no longer confronted with miles of travel to games, so too did the team's fortunes.

The rink's opening also gave birth to a successful local youth hockey program. The league was due in great part to the organizing and coaching efforts of longtime city resident and Rhode Island Reds hockey icon, Zelio Toppazzini, whose sons Mike and Hugh, starred on the first state championship team the program produced.

However, it was all too good to be true. A year after the rink opened, the [00:04:00] owners and the town were at odds over the terms of the lease. Unbeknownst to the council and taxpayers, the Town Solicitor was a silent partner in the rink, unfortunately, a conflict of interest that was not revealed until 1977.

Also, by the late 70s, the price of electricity had skyrocketed to two successive oil embargoes, the demand for ice time had cooled, and, like a number of Rhode Island rinks faced with a similar cascade of higher costs and unexpected events, the North Providence Arena was in trouble.

On March 11th, 1979, the final Rhode Island Interscholastic League games were played at the North Providence Arena. Later that month, financial problems forced the closure of the rink. As far as hockey was concerned, that was the end.

At a bank foreclosure auction in July 1979, local businessman Joseph A. Matteo took over the rink with a high bid of $225,000, topping the town's offer of $217,000. Four months later, the Zamboni, boards, glass, scoreboard, and nets went on the auction block. In February 1980 that building reopened for roller skating under the name Super Skates. It didn't last long. The former North Providence Arena closed for good in 1981. That brings us to today. The town converted its current use to the Union Free Library and pool and fitness center in May of 1983."

One well-known hockey player from Rhode Island, Tom Mellor, was inducted into the Boston College Athletics Hall of Fame in 1980. He is currently also an inductee into the Rhode Island Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2022. Taking bits of this article from the Rhode Island Hockey Hall of Fame, Tom Mellor's biography reads as such.

"As a Boston college freshman in 1968 to 69, Tom scored nine goals and 19 points in his 17-game season. He had a great sophomore campaign, tallying 21 goals and 44 points in the 26 games. He followed [00:06:00] that up with 40 points in 25 games the following year. Mellor also played 18 games for the US National Team that season, scoring a goal and five points in international competition.

One of the highlights of Mellor's hockey career occurred in 1972 when he played for the US Olympic Team, which brought home a silver medal from Sapporo, Japan. He also represented his country at the 1972 and 1973 IIHF World Championships.

Mellor returned to Boston College for his senior year in 1972 to 73, taking a year off from school during his international appearances with the US National Team. In 30 games, he scored six goals and led the nation with 45 assists. He was selected an All-American in 1973.

Tom was inducted into the college's Varsity Hall of Fame in 1980. His jersey was retired and hoisted to the Conte Form rafters in January of 2019.

In 1973-74, Mellor joined the NHL's Detroit Red Wings, the club that drafted him in the first round, 68th overall in the 1970 Amateur Draft. He suited up for 25 games with the Red Wings, scoring two goals and six points. He also played 23 games with the AHL's Virginia wings as well as in a six-game stint in the British League with the London Lions where he had seven points in six games. In 1974, he played in one final NHL game with the Red Wings. His career totals were 26 games, two goals, and six assists. The remainder of the year was spent in Virginia where he had 17 goals and 52 points with the AHL's Wings.

In 1975, Mellor played 34 games with Vastra Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League, scoring eight goals and 16 points. He also suited up for 13 games with the Toledo Goaldiggers of the IHL, scoring 15 points. He returned for one final year of [00:08:00] pro hockey with the Goaldiggers in 1976 to 77, where he averaged a point per game over 75 games. He went out in style, winning the prestigious James Gatschene Memorial Trophy, given to the Most Valuable Player in the IHL."

Today, I am joined by Tom Mellor and his father, Don Mellor, to talk a little bit more about their experiences with Rhode Island hockey and beyond. This morning, I'm joined by Tom Mellor and his father, Don Mellor, two influential individuals in Rhode Island's hockey history. Good morning, Tom. How are you today?

Tom: Good morning, Stefanie. Nice to be here.

Stefanie: It's nice to have you here. Don, welcome. How are you today?

Don: Couldn't be better, Stefanie. Thank you.

Stefanie: You're welcome. It's very nice to have you both here. Tom, would you mind telling our listeners a little bit about your history in the Rhode Island hockey system, and where it took you, and all the good things.

Tom: I'd be delighted to. I was very fortunate. I grew up in Cranston, was fortunate to grow up in a hockey family. My dad was a professional hockey player back with the Boston Olympics in the early 40s. Being one of six kids, hockey was big in Rhode Island, and thanks, no thanks to my dad, who founded the youth program in Cranston along with a number of other dads when there weren't really a lot of organized leagues. I began playing at a young age. We would skate on the ponds in the old Cranston pool. There were only a few rinks back then.

I think it was the old Rhode Island Auditorium, which is near and dear to our hearts. That was the home of the Rhode Island Reds at the American Hockey League. Then there was a small rink called the Ice Bowl, which was down by the bay and shipyard area [00:10:00] As I understand it, we're sitting in a former rink here in North Providence. That was some great history.

Stefanie: Yes. As you may know, this was the North Providence Arena. It's a big building. You can see that when you walk in. Some people don't realize it was a hockey rink, but it was. Now it's a large library. We're able to serve the whole town of North Providence here, along with the neighboring towns and cities. We do have some visitors from Lincoln, Smithfield, Providence, and everyone enjoys it. They're very surprised to know that it was a hockey rink. Some people do remember, and then they ended up telling their own stories.

Tom, I told the listeners earlier about some of your career and how you ended up on the 1972 Olympic Team. Would you like to talk a little about your college years and your experiences over in Japan for the Olympics?

Tom: Yes. I think it actually started a little bit before that, where, instead of going to Cranston High School, I was able to go to a school called Northwood up in Lake Placid, New York, thanks to my dad and a friend who had had one of his sons go up there. I was able to play high school hockey at a very high level. We played a lot of games against college freshmen, and I think it really jumpstarted my progress.

I was able to go to Boston College, where I enjoyed that for four years. After the third year, I was invited to join the Olympic Hockey Team, that was in 1971-72 season, and later returned to Boston College after the Olympics. I would say the Olympics was the highlight of my career. Just representing the country, putting on the red, white, and blue, and playing overseas at those games was a thrill of a lifetime.

Stefanie: Thank you so much [00:12:00]. We can read about the 1972 Olympic Team in the book Striking Silver: The Untold Story of America's Forgotten Hockey Team by Tom-

Tom: Tom and Jerry Caraccioli-

Stefanie: -Caraccioli.

Tom: -were actually friends of one of the players, Peter Sears. They were from Oswego, New York. Peter was one of our goaltenders, actually served time for the US Army in Vietnam, came back, and he's a story in himself. That was a turbulent times back there in the late '60s, early '70s. It was before the professionals started playing in the Olympics, so it was a very special time for all of us.

Stefanie: Thank you. This book can be found in the Ocean State library system. We do have copies here at North Providence, and there are copies over in Cranston, Rhode Island, your hometown. If anyone's interested in this book, please ask your local library and you can read more on the US Hockey Team who came home with the silver. Now, Tom, your father, Don, also had experiences over in Japan. Would you like to talk a little bit about that, Don?

Don: Well, yes, not so much in Japan, but getting ready to go within Japan with the Navy. I can't say what I did much in Japan, but getting ready for it, I did a lot. I'd say it started as getting aboard a tin can, going out into the Pacific not knowing where we're going to go or when we're going to come back. Fortunately, I came back.

I'm ready to explain what tin can sailor means. As far as I can remember, when we first had recruits going into [00:14:00] San Pedro, I think, in California to see the ship being launched, I can remember talking to another recruit, "Are we going to get on that thing? It looks like it's been made out of tin." I could picture 300 men on that, "I hope it floats," but we soon found out what it was all about, and I can understand why I'm a proud tin can sailor.

I've got to mention I married a war veteran too. My wife was in the Coast Guard, so we're a military family and a combat military family. We went through a lot of moments there that-- I don't know how we did it. I learned an awful lot. I learned being in the Navy, you do what you're told, you had a boss, and you had to have faith in the boss that he made the right decisions.

I found out through life, we all have decisions to make, some important, some not meaning an awful lot, but we have to make them, and we have to have faith in our leaders. As good as your leaders are, and I think we had a great leader on my ship. Made some tough decisions, but he brought me home through a decision that he made, that I can remember very well. I met some nice people, and I'm meeting nicer people in the library now.

Stefanie: We're so glad we got to meet you, Don. You're definitely a piece of renowned history in the libraries and hockey for your contributions coaching the youth in Cranston. Tom, you were recently inducted into the Rhode Island Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2022. Would you like to talk a little bit about your experiences?

Tom: That was [00:16:00] a huge thrill for me, Stefanie. I can recall growing up in Cranston, I knew a lot of the great players, and coaches, and influencers in Rhode Island hockey, and to be recognized as one of them is a huge thrill. I have to say, full credit to the man sitting across from me, my dad, who really introduced me to the game. He was never pushy. I just loved to play and was fortunate to be able to play at a very high level, so to be going in this August with a bunch of other great inductees is a real thrill. I'm very excited about it.

Stefanie: Thank you so much, Tom. That event is going to be locally, correct?

Tom: Yes, it's in August at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet. There will be four other inductees along with me, and it should be a fun evening.

Stefanie: That's great. I look forward to it. I will be in attendance, of course. If anyone wants to learn more, you can check out your local library, Striking Silver: The Untold Story of America's Forgotten Hockey Team. Also, if you want to read more about the Rhode Island Hockey Hall of Fame and the other inductees into this year's class, you can go to www.rihhof.com for more information. They also have a Facebook page as well. I've seen a lot of information on their Facebook page regarding the inductees and their history.

Thank you both Don and Tom for being here this morning. This was a thrill. I'm glad you got to visit a lost arena of Rhode Island. Do you have a favorite arena that you played at?

Tom: Well, that's a great question. I think, coming from Rhode Island, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the old Rhode Island Auditorium, [00:18:00] where my dad played. I was able to play in the National Hockey League a year. I played some years professionally but playing in the old Boston Garden, up in the old one, in the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens, some of the original six buildings in Detroit, and Chicago, just a thrill to put on those jerseys and to skate where the legends used to skate.

I don't know if there's a favorite one, but I just savor those times when I was able to play under the bright lights.

Stefanie: Don, do you have any favorite hockey arenas in Rhode Island that strike up any memories for you?

Don: I could start with the Blackamore Pond.

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Stefanie: An open-air rink. [laughs]

Don: Well, I'm so proud of Tom's career. My other kids all had great careers, and they all left home when they were ready, I guess when I was ready to put them out. I'm quite proud of what my kids have done. They run a different field. I could talk a long time on my kids. My kids are everything. They keep me going, especially now.

Had great thrills with the kids and seeing them progress in whatever field they're involved within. My big career was with a phone company and then I fell into the library business. I put more time into the library than I did with the telephone company. I just love the atmosphere of a library, and I never knew what the library was except a place where you could go and get a book, I guess. I just love what I [00:20:00] did after.

I thought I'd retire completely after 35 years in the phone company, but I found the library, took me to-- I learned a lot from the library. I really did. I learned you have to have a boss for one thing you have to, just the responsibility, I had to be there on time, you had to do certain things. When everyone does their job, you find success. I'm so proud of what you've done to take over for the little Auburn library– the Oaklawn library, [00:20:30], which I kind of liked because was a party there going. Well, anyway.

Stefanie: [laughs] Thank you so much, Don. I'm so happy that you got to see me here as the director. I know you followed my career too, as I have followed yours. Then Tom, same to you. It was so wonderful having you here to visit and to record a podcast for the Rhode Island Libraries. Subscribe to our channel and come learn more about the hockey history of Rhode Island. Have a wonderful rest of your day.

Not only does Tom Mellor have his mark in Rhode Island hockey history, his father, Don Mellor, also gave a big contribution to children in Rhode Island, especially Cranston, to express themselves and have the opportunity to play hockey. This information is coming from the Rhode Island Hockey Hall of Fame website in The Mellor Family article.

"To give more kids the chance to play and skate, Don helped found the Cranston League for Cranston's Future. CLCF started in 1953 offering football, and it was based in a building at the city's Budlong Pool. The pool was across the street from both Blackamore Pond, where Don skated as a child, and the Mellor home.

With Don's involvement, CLCF added hockey [00:22:00] in 1955, and kids skated on the frozen pool. At night, the city turned on the pool lights.

'We would practice there in high school,' his son Duke said. 'It was just a big square concrete pool where I told people going into the corners took on a whole new meaning.' 'All the kids were down there skating,' Tom said. 'Dad was helping them, Dick McLaughlin was there, and Swede Erickson would come over from Warrick. The fathers were very involved.' Ralph 'Swede' Erickson had played for the Rhode Island Scarlets with Don. Even with the pool pressed into service, there were more kids than the ice could accommodate, so Don persuaded the fire department to flood a large field behind the pool complex. Cranston kids called it the Aqueduct.

'We'd go down to the field every day,' Tom said. 'We lived on Aqueduct Road, and then we move three blocks up to Colonial Avenue, where it was a 10-minute walk. We were so fortunate.' Playing at the Aqueduct, came with its own set of lessons. The first ones weren't necessarily about skating and passing. One lesson was about hanging tough. 'When you had to walk to the pond, you know, it's not like walking to the ballfield on a nice day,' Duke said. 'Then you're sitting there in the dark and taking your skates off and walking home cold and wet. I think that may say a little bit more about what young kids go through to play hockey, although today I'm sure there are guys in the National Hockey League who have never been on a pond.'

Another lesson was responsibility. 'We grew up with our parents telling us the right thing to do and then letting us go out and doing it,' Tom said. 'If we didn't do it right, we heard about it. Things like, 'Be back before the streetlights come on, and if you're not back, you're not going to the game tonight,' so guess what? We came home before the streetlights came on.'

Don also worked to create opportunities for girls, helping to organize an hour of time for figure skating at the Ice Bowl on Friday nights. In those days, girls' hockey didn't [00:24:00] exist."

I am so glad I got to finally welcome Tom Mellor into probably the one arena he didn't skate in during his hockey career, now turned North Providence Union Free Library. Though he was not here to skate, he definitely made an impression visiting our library recently, talking to some patrons, and also participating in a program with his father, Don Mellor, regarding both of their visits to Japan.

I hope that you find the time in your schedules to visit our library here, atop Mineral Spring Avenue. We've been here since 1985 when the building opened in all its grandeur to the town who was awaiting a larger library to be built when they outgrew the space of their newer library on George Street. As you probably can tell, this library, once being a hockey rink, is quite the large building, and we have wonderful facilities to accommodate programs and meetings, both inside and outside the library. The pool and fitness center is attached to us in back. That area was also part of the hockey rink.

A lot of people recognize the original shape of the hockey rink from outside. The architecture that got added to the exterior of the building definitely holds the image of a hockey rink, yet at the same time, a very interesting and noteworthy building to everyone who passes by. Make sure to say hello, if you do come in. Once again, I'm Stefanie Blankenship, the Director of the North Providence Union Free Library. It was my pleasure to bring you back in time [00:26:00] to the lost arena of Rhode Island, an Olympian from Rhode Island, and the library that it became. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day. Stay well, and we'll see you soon.

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