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Lock Monsters off to fine start


By Bill Burt
Eagle-Tribune Columnist

LOWELL --His friends in hockey told Tommy Rowe he had the best job in professional hockey.

Since July 1, 1995 -- three years and three months ago -- he ran a hockey organization that didn't have a hockey team. And the paychecks never bounced.

If only Rowe's friends knew.

Rowe would have cried last night when the puck dropped, finally, for the Lowell Lock Monsters at 7:49 p.m., at the beautiful Tsongas Arena.

But he was too busy.

''I was walking in a runway under the stands,'' said Rowe. ''I wish I saw it. But I was out on the ice before the game when the guys were warming up. I got a chill when I saw that.''

For a few years here in Lowell, Rowe, a Lynn native, wondered if the puck was ever really going to drop. In fact, he remembered going home one night and telling his wife he didn't think it would happen. Due to problems with the Tsongas Arena, which ran into more hurdles than a high school track meet.

There were construction delays and political road blocks. Bobby Orr, who entered the project at its infancy at the behest of Paul Tsongas, who died on Jan. 8, 1997, dropped out in October of 1996.

''I took this job because I thought it would be a great experience to learn the marketing and business side of hockey,'' said Rowe, who left the Hartford Whalers as an assistant general manager to join the Lock Monsters.

''But when we had the second season cancelled (last summer), I sat down with my wife (Bernice) and we talked about a contingency plan.''

But almost within an hour, one by one, the three team owners -- Gilbert Campbell, Elkin McCullum and George Behrakis -- unbeknownst to the other, called Rowe to inform them of their desire to bite the bullet and continue.

''We knew he was having a tough time,'' said Campbell, a well-noted thoroughbred horse owner and developer, who lives in Tyngsboro. ''All along, we've known how good he was. Since the beginning, he's done so much for this team. From what I've understood, he hasn't been sleeping much. I guess he's been a little nervous.''

Rowe said being back around Boston has made much of the stress of the last three years bearable.

Rowe and his family bought a house in Amherst, N.H. (about 20 minutes north of Lowell). His wife Bernice is the Lock Monsters' ticket manager.

''Working with my wife has been a wonderful thing,'' said Rowe.

Rowe has experience in starting from scratch. He was one of the first Americans to play in the NHL, shortly after Tommy Williams paved the way with the Minnesota North Stars in 1969.

He spent nine years in professional hockey, seven in the NHL --Washington, Hartford and Detroit. Of all the time he spent, his first shift in the NHL was probably his most memorable.

''I was with the Washington Capitals and we were in the

Boston Garden,'' recalled Rowe. ''I scored on Gerry Cheevers. It was incredible.''

Believe it or not, last night's thrill was even better, especially when the game's attendance -- 6,492, only four short of the official capacity --was announced.

''That's my job, to get people here,'' said Rowe. ''Whatever it takes. We've got to keep the building clean, serve good food and give them a good product on the ice. If we do that, we'll be alright.''

The fans got their money's worth.

They got music, several free T-shirts (tossed into the stands), a throw the puck on the ice contest and a wide selection of food.

On the ice they got a lot of goals (nine), a close game (a 5-4 win over the Portland Pirates) and, maybe best of all, four fights in unison after the clock expired.

Despite the fine show, Rowe didn't expect to get much sleep last night either. He was to meet with most of his lieutenants to discuss the opening night glitches.

And the Lock Monsters play host to the Beast of New Haven tonight at 7:30 p.m.

''I'll probably sleep pretty good on Sunday,'' said Rowe. ''I know I could use a good sleep.''

A well-deserved one, too.