After a visit to Lowell, Mass. in 1842, Charles Dickens spoke of his "inadequate expression of the gratification it yielded me." In 1901 the painter and native Lowellian James McNeill Whistler offered a harsher opinion: "I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell."
It has ever been thus. The argument has perpetually raged over whether Lowell, a mill city of 92,000, 24 miles northwest of Boston, is closer to heaven or hell. The hottest topic in town today is Rand McNally's recently published Places Rated Almanac, which lists Lowell as the fourth most undesirable metropolitan area in which to live in the U.S. Lowell denizens take umbrage at such assessments. They point defiantly to the city's storied Merrimack River, to its ongoing historic restoration project, to the University of Lowell, a school of 13,000 that's noted for its engineering program, and, especially, to the college's national championship hockey team.
Lowell has embraced the Chiefs because they are much like the town itself: ethnic, proud, tough and determined to win in the end. The players are good, hardworking kids, and they've got a good, hardworking coach.
The place to start with Bill Riley Jr., a/k/a The Lowell Hockey Program, is out back of the school gym in 1969. It's twilight on a winter's evening, and Riley is standing there, all 5'7" of him, shivering as he floods the tennis courts to create Lowell's practice ice. Here's the strange part: Riley is excited about what he's doing. He's one year out of Boston University, where he played aggressive hockey as a too-small forward, and now he has his own college team to coach. Although it's a Division II club, and one the athletic department would just as soon drop, he believes that if anyone can make this thing work, then a Riley can. Didn't Dad twice lead the country in scoring while playing for Dartmouth? Didn't Uncle Jack coach the 1960 Olympic team to the gold medal?
Riley flooded the tennis courts and dreamed of good skaters, new uniforms and indoor ice. All were slow in coming, but eventually they did. The breakthrough occurred five years ago, when Craig MacTavish, a Junior-B player from Ontario, ended up at Lowell after being turned down at Brown. As a sophomore in 1978-79, MacTavish won the NCAA Division II scoring title, and Lowell won the national championship. The next season, MacTavish having gone to the Boston Bruins, Lowell lost in the NCAA semifinals and finished 23-7.
At the start of 1980-81 the Chiefs' potential was unknown. But when they lost three straight, that question seemed answered. So Riley showed up for a game on Jan. 14 against Babson sporting an oversized cowboy hat, and he told his players just to have some fun. Thus began The Streak. The hat stayed on for 28 games as Lowell won the 1981 national title and the first 12 games of this season as well.
Small wonder that the community got caught up in the excitement. Lowell's cable-TV station (yes, even Lowell) began covering Chief games, and Channel 9 in Manchester, N.H. started videotaping highlights for its 11 p.m. news. Lowell City Manager Joe Tully coaxed the state into buying the old Billerica Forum for the university. Last summer, CETA workers (remember them?) began renovating the arena. In December Riley held a special "work" day during which his players and 80 volunteers painted the arena, cleaned the bleachers and did some plumbing and wiring. By the time the morning doughnuts, the lunchtime stew and the cocktail-hour beer had been consumed, the cavernous Forum—"that dump," as it had often been described by the locals—looked real pretty.
The Streak, the NCAA titles, the local support—the Chiefs draw more than 2,000 fans a game at home—have combined to present the obvious question: When is Lowell going Division I? The school will formally consider the move this semester. However, despite the Chiefs' 7-7 record against Division I teams the past four seasons, Riley has reservations. "I like the low-key atmosphere of a Division II program," he says. "But we've been beating up on our opponents pretty much, which is not healthy."
No, it's not. Consider that until Saturday's 5-3 loss to archrival Merrimack, Lowell had won 34 straight Division II games. That at week's end it was 20-3. That All-America Paul Lohnes was voted the best defenseman, Division II or Division I, in New England last year. That in the last three seasons Lowell has produced five Division II All-Americas. That since midway through last season it has scored more shorthanded goals than its opponents have scored power-play goals. Yet the stat Riley says he's proudest of is that 100% of his players who have skated four years have earned their degrees.
Lowell fans will tell you that all this success is Riley's doing. So why is a coach with a five-year record of 110-35-3 still in Lowell? "Look, I've had opportunities to move to bigger schools," he says, "but I enjoy it here. I've enjoyed watching this grow. I like the area, too. It's very ethnic; it's got the different neighborhoods—the Portuguese, Greek, Italian, Irish, French. They're very intense and proud. A lot of people don't have a good feeling about Lowell. It's one of the last places they'd think of going for a weekend. But we do have pride in Lowell. And if a good athletic team helps, well, then, that's good."
And so there, Rand McNally.
Riley has his Lowell Chiefs smoking again.