The best part about the holiday season? Playing outdoor hockey on the rink, of course.
Ever since I can remember we’ve had a rink at our house. When I was little, my dad put it together himself, doing the shovelling, flooding and all the upkeep as a one-man crew. It was a place where we could learn to skate, handle the puck and shoot. But since I come from a snowbelt in Ontario, about 20 minutes north of Barrie, we get a lot of the white stuff. Looking back I don’t know how he managed all the shovelling himself early on.
As we got older, it was our turn to chip in. Dad would still do most of the flooding, but with three growing boys in the family we took over the ice clearing duties for the most part. After a large dump of precipitation it wasn’t always easy to look at the big pile of snow and want to clear the ice, but dad would motivate us by making it a bit of a competition. We had two streaks to shoot for: how many days in a row you could skate on our rink; and how many days in a row you could get on the ice, whether it was our rink or with minor hockey. If you didn’t shovel after a big storm, you couldn’t keep your streak going.
(As an aside, if you flood the rink at night, you often hear the packs of coyotes howling. And even though it’s coming from a distance, because sound carries in the cold weather, it often sounds like they’re close. It’s a cool thing to hear and a big reason I actually enjoy flooding the rink at night.)
Eventually we built it so there were boards around the entire surface except at the entrance to the ice. There was one low board at one end to make it easy to step off if you fired a puck over, but the rest of them were high enough for us to introduce bodychecking to our adrenaline-pumping backyard games.
And that surface has its fair share of stories. The goalies didn’t always wear masks and I vividly remember going down to cover a puck only to take a whack in the face with a stick that opened my upper lip. I also remember my friend David rushing down with the puck and being hit on the fly by my other friend Josh. It was a hard hit and unfortunately David went half over at the low board, hitting his forehead straight on a broken tree branch and, yes, leaving quite the mark.
But no one ever complained about that stuff. We’d all be back playing the next night or the next weekend.
We’d be out there for hours and take breaks for one of three things: Coach’s Corner on Saturday nights; to warm our numbing toes by the woodstove; and when my mom brought out hot chocolate, which David always said was the best in the world.
We were Al MacInnis, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and more. When Doug Gilmour was traded to Toronto Jan. 2, 1992, I was eight years old and had no idea who he was. But I remember us being out on the rink and running inside to ask dad who was the best player Toronto got in that trade. I ran back out wanting to be Gilmour, and the rest is history.
We’re never at home for too long anymore, so the rink doesn’t last all winter like it used to. This year we didn’t put all the boards up, but when we brought some people over for a skate it was just like being a kid again.
If one thing’s for sure, that little rink taught us how to protect the puck, pass it through tight spaces and keep our heads up. Our matches would often get heated, so it taught us a little character as well. But most of all, it left us all with lasting memories that we’re able to still build on today.
Whenever I tell anybody the rink is back and they have to come over for a skate you can hear the joy and excitement in their voice, right next to the amazement the "Mt. St. Louis Gardens" is still alive and kicking. Even though we’re bigger now and take up more of the ice, we were still able to get some 3-on-3 action - complete with goalies - going for a few hours.
We don’t bodycheck anymore - aside from the odd soft push - but everybody still brings it with enthusiasm. And after our game this year when my friend Matt was leaving, we shook hands and I thanked him for coming.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said.
To which I replied: “We’ll do it again next year.”
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
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