It’s New Year’s Day 2014 as I write this, and the NHL’s annual Winter Classic game (pitting the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings in Michigan Stadium) is but hours away.
Whilst doing my usual scan of notable blog posts for my “Hockey Blog Beat” update, I noted the following from Michael Langlois of “Vintage Leaf Memories” asking readers to share memories of playing outdoor hockey.
That sparked several moments reminiscing about my childhood in the village of Carleton, Nova Scotia in the 1970s. Growing up in those days I was sports-mad, as were many of my cousins and friends. We spent every available minute (when we weren’t doing chores and schoolwork) pursuing our favorite outdoor activities.
It was ball hockey in the spring and fall, baseball, football and soccer spring through fall, and of course ice hockey in the winter.
Though there were several lakes and ponds upon which to play, our favorite was “Otis’ Pond” near the center of village behind the post office. Otis Hamilton, whose wife ran the post office, would dam a drainage ditch to flood the lower part of his field, providing us with a perfect skating rink when winter came.
From the first good freeze-up until the late-March thaw there was always a hockey game going on, whether there was two kids or twenty. The first team to score ten goals won, after which we’d change the teams up and do it again. During weekdays we’d race home from school, grab our skates, sticks and whatever other gear we could carry and head to the pond. We’d play until dark then head home for supper, chores and schoolwork.
Weekends and holidays were the best. We’d gather around mid-morning once the chores were done, play until noon, head home for a quick bite and dash back to the pond, where we’d play all afternoon until dark. We’d go home for supper, then return and light a bonfire for an evening skating party. On Saturday nights, after the bonfire we’d go home to watch Hockey Night in Canada.
On Sunday afternoons following Sunday school and church, we’d try to emulate the actions of our favorite players from the night before. This was the era of Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Darryl Sittler and Bobby Clarke, so in rural Nova Scotia we cheered for the Bruins, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Bruins or Flyers. We didn’t have sports networks and wall-to-wall hockey coverage. Back then, no one I grew up with during that era cheered for any other club except those four.
Our equipment was often whatever we could cobble together, in part because bringing all your gear (if you played minor hockey) was a pain in the ass to hump down to the pond. I was a goaltender, in part because Ken Dryden was my hero but also because at that time I wasn’t a strong skater. My goalie equipment was usually borrowed and rarely complete. It often consisted of skates, pads, a blocker, a baseball glove and a goalie stick. No mask, chest protector or cup, meaning the standard rule was “no risers!” when shooting on goalies. That actually made for creative play, as shooters would try to beat you with low angle shots or try to deke you out of position.
Sometimes we’d argue about disputed goals or even what the score was, but we rarely fought and when we did it was quickly forgiven and forgotten. None of us went on to play in the NHL. Back then hardly any kids from Nova Scotia did. Playing the game and having fun was all that mattered. Playing hockey on Otis’ Pond are among my happiest childhood memories.
Playing on a pond for hours, inhaling clean cold air under bright winter skies, scraping the ice with show shovels before each game, digging for stray pucks in snow banks and pretending to be our favorite NHL stars was the prototypical Canadian childhood. I consider myself fortunate to have experienced it. Sadly, I don’t see many kids out playing pond hockey anymore. It’s a shame because they’re missing out on hockey’s true heartbeat. It doesn’t come from arenas and leagues but from the frozen ponds, lakes and harbors of our childhoods, where creativity thrives and the joy of the game isn’t ruined by demanding coaches and parents.
I never had a pro hockey career but I played in organized leagues until my late-thirties. It never came close to matching those games on Otis’ Pond. Nothing ever will. We were kids, our lives had yet to unfold with its shares of joys and sorrows, and all that mattered was the joy of play on a frozen outdoor pond.
Happy New Year, everyone. Feel free to share your favorite outdoor hockey memories in the comments section.