The NHL season is already more than a quarter of the way through, but the genuine hockey season is almost ready to dig in its heels.
I’m talking about outdoor hockey.
Depending on where you live, the outdoor hockey season may already be alive and well, but for many people the Christmas holidays mark the opening ceremonies.
Growing up about an hour north of Toronto, I was lucky to always have a backyard rink to escape the winter “blahs.” My Dad would go out with the garden hose and flood a surface set out specifically as a base for building an ice sheet and before we knew it, we were out there playing 2-on-1s, 3-on-2s, shootout competitions, or all-out 3-on-3, 4-on-4 or 5-on-5 games of shinny.
Every year is supposedly the last year for the Mt. St. Louis Arena, but when the next winter coldly rolls around someone – whether it’s one of my two brothers or a collective pursuit – takes up the challenge to revive it. We’ve all grown up and moved away to work or school, so while we aren’t home long enough to build a rink for prolonged usage, as long as we get out there for at least one good skate, it’s all worth it.
While my earliest, clear memories of hockey begin with racing to the television to watch the Stanley Cup final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota North Stars – hey, I was seven – my best ones come from that sheet of ice.
Most weekends we’d have a few friends/teammates over to play, but as we got older, the player collection spread from our middle-of-nowhere area all the way into town, 20 minutes away. After 20-plus years of playing in the backyard, there have been many nice-looking goals, slick glove saves and, yes, bloody messes.
One of the biggest pains, though, was when you shot the puck over the boards and had to go trudging through deep snow to find it, often in the dark. I’m sure many people can relate. We’d always claim to have lost only one or two over the winter, but come springtime, our annual puck harvest would provide a bounty of rubber discs fit for a king.
Of course, we had our intermissions out there, too. What’s a day on the rink without stopping for hot chocolate and marshmallows? Or, if we’re playing on Saturday night, stopping the game to go inside to watch Don Cherry or some of the NHL game.
Even though my whole family is composed of Boston Bruins fans – something I never latched onto – growing up where we did meant it was all Toronto Maple Leafs all the time. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a real, dedicated hockey fan and it happened while we were playing on the rink in 1992.
I can distinctly remember Dad coming outside to tell us about a trade the Maple Leafs had made with the Calgary Flames. It was a bunch of players I was unfamiliar with at the time, but being the young age we were, everyone on the ice wanted to “be” one of these NHL players on the pond.
I think my initial pick was to be Kent Manderville, but after Dad told me Doug Gilmour was the big player in the trade, I changed my mind. Doug who? He was just a name to me at the time.
Of course, Gilmour went on to have a great career with the Leafs and was one of the most exciting players for me to watch growing up. Dougie became my favorite player and, given this unforgettable memory, will always hold a special place in my hockey world.
So if you have a chance to play pond hockey this Christmas break, don’t pass it up. There is nothing like breathing in a crisp, sharp, cloudless winter evening, while skating around in a t-shirt and snow pants.
For those in climates unsuitable for outdoor hockey, heck, make a trip up to God’s Country and strap on the blades. Take on Mother Nature’s elements head-to-head.
As for me, I hope my youngest brother follows through on his claim: If the weather gets cold enough, he will build the rink this winter.
Hey, Sean, I hear it’s minus-8 Celsius up there today.
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