Somebody said it was minus-27 Celsius in Sudbury, Ont., on Saturday. But as we peeled off the layers of sweat-soaked clothing and watched the steam waft off our bodies, it certainly didn’t seem that way to us.
Funny how playing hockey outside makes you impervious to such things as bone-chilling temperatures. Since moving “down south” – that’s what they call Toronto in my hometown – more than 20 years ago, I have to admit I’ve become something of a cold-weather wimp. But as I skated for two wonderful hours with my sons and nephews Saturday and Sunday afternoon on the rink across from the house where my 80-year-old mother still lives, I can say without a doubt the only things that were frozen were my scoring touch and the wonderful memories of Rosemarie Playground that came flooding back to me.
Forty years ago when mastodons roamed the earth and I was a young kid, Rosemarie Playground was a few tick-tick-ticks of the skates across the street from my house. There were a lot of perks to living so close to the playground. You could go home mid-game without removing your skates, eat lunch and return to action all in the space of five minutes. In the spring, your backyard became a treasure trove of pucks that had gone flying across the boards over the previous four months.
But most of all, Rosemarie Playground was my personal nirvana, my escape from reality and the place where I fell in love with the game. It was where I learned to skate, all by myself – no skating program, no chair, nobody holding me up. It was where I scored my first goal in organized hockey and it was where I cut my teeth as a referee. It was where we would play all day, stopping only for meals (sometimes) and hot chocolate in the indoor shack (a lot more often).
It was against this backdrop that I managed to shoehorn two games of shinny into a hectic schedule this weekend. It was different than I remember. It always is.
The playground is run solely by volunteers now and it’s a lot quieter than I remember. The canteen wasn’t open and there are no longer boards or a players’ bench. But being able to play on that ice with my two sons, along with my nephews and their own children, made the entire experience just as special.
And the games were just as I remembered them. Like any outdoor shinny game, there was one guy who dangled all over the place and never passed the puck and pulled the Peter Forsberg shootout move on a 10-year-old. There were goal-sucks and kids who wandered in and out of the game. No score was ever kept, although my son Lukas did keep a running total of his goals and assists.
It brought me back to a time when my neighborhood was overrun with the kids of good Catholic parents who didn’t dare risk the Lord’s wrath by using birth control. My parents had six kids, but I remember families with 10 and 11 in our neighborhood. Everybody on your block was either employed directly or indirectly by the mining industry and times were almost always good. Unless of course, when Inco was on strike, as they were for my entire Grade 11 year.
It was a time when nobody had to have “play dates” because you just showed up at the rink first thing in the morning and played until Hockey Night in Canada started at 8 p.m.
We had the Pascal brothers – Randy, Rick, Terry and Dwayne. There was Roy D’Amour, who was sneaky good and sometimes got the stick up a little too high. There was Gilles Belanger and Rick Szkalej, who were bigger kids who provided the muscle. There was Joe Bonhomme, whose niece Tessa recently made the cut for the Canadian Olympic women’s team. There was my best friend Gary Nadeau, who is now a doctor in Buffalo. I still keep in touch with almost all of them.
What made it all so special was that Rosemarie Playground was just one little pocket of many in Sudbury that was home to a grassroots phenomenon I had never seen before nor have seen since. I’m sure there are a lot of leagues like it around Canada, but the Sudbury Playground Hockey League was something of an anomaly.
You see, God gave Sudbury about six months of harsh winters and some time in the early 1950s, a few people took the hint. There wasn’t a neighborhood in the city that didn’t have its own self-sustaining playground and, it seemed to me at least, there wasn’t a kid in the city who didn’t have access to a skating rink within walking distance. I tried to come up with the names of as many playgrounds as I could remember off the top of my head and I wrote down 27 of them.
Each of these little communities had its own hockey and ringette organizations from squirt to midget. Those with more talent and money could play in the much more prestigious “city” league, but in the playground league, all you needed to do was scrape up the equipment and a baptismal certificate and you were good to go. Everything was free and every game and practice – with the exception of one game a season – were held outside with parents standing around the boards on snowbanks. Between periods, they would scrape the excess snow off the ice and after everyone went home, a few brave souls would flood the rink with a hose.
Mike Foligno got his start in playground hockey. So did former lesser-known NHLers such as Johnny Baby and Kevin LaVallee, the latter of whom played at Rosemarie and went on to score 110 career goals in the NHL. Columbus Blue Jackets scout Paul Castron, who skated on a scholarship at St. Lawrence University, played playground hockey.
But so did Danny Grier, the most naturally talented stickhandler I’ve ever seen who never played any high-level hockey. There was my buddy up the street, Donald Nault. Back in the 1970s it was perfectly acceptable to call a person “crippled” and despite the fact Donald was, he would get on his knees and play goal. He was almost impossible to beat. He later went on to become a nationally ranked disabled athlete and probably the physically and mentally strongest person I’ve ever known.
There were a lot of terrific players who learned their skills at the playground – for the record, I was terrible – because you played constantly.
When I was at Rosemarie this past weekend, I was a little saddened to learn that not much of that exists anymore. When I was young, the city paid a retiree to run the place, but the day I was there, it was being taken care of by a volunteer who was there only because his son was out playing. The majority of the playgrounds don’t even have rinks anymore and the Sudbury Playground League consists of just seven teams, plays all its games indoors and lists corporate sponsors on its website.
I don’t know why that is, but I suspect it’s a combination of budget restraints, people having fewer children and other pursuits for young people.
But it’s nice to know Rosemarie Playground has, for the most part, remained frozen in time. I think I’ll go back.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.