Growing up, I was a total sports snob. I always differentiated between non-contact, gym sports – basketball, volleyball, that weird game in Asia where they play volleyball with their feet – and real sports – hockey, end of list. I silently sneered at classmates who stayed after school to change into sneakers and shorts to run around on whichever overlapping lines applied to them, while I went home to grab my gear and head to whichever mini-stadium I was playing in that night.
There was just something…flakey about school sports. Their games were about an hour, usually right after school. I had to be at the rink an hour early, for a two-hour time slot, and often didn’t make it home until after twelve on a school night. Something about the small time commitment and large amount of sleep they got made me doubt they really cared about their games the way my teammates and I cared about ours.
And that’s just the hours and gas spent on the actual games and practices my parents paid obscene money for me to play in. A young hockey player’s dedication (along with their parent’s) goes well beyond the ice times he or she signs up for. A young hockey player will spend ten or more hours a week on the ice and then, on a free Sunday, will look outside at snow blowing in the chilling wind and think, “Better grab my toque. I’m going to the outdoor rink.”
When I was really young, Michael’s Park in Mill Woods was the place to skate. They had benches, and lines painted on well-groomed ice, plus a second rink for non-hockey players. It attracted all ages and abilities, and we would all play together. That’s one of the unique aspects of outdoor hockey: everyone can play. Besides gym sport players being too wimpy to play outdoor in the winter, their pick-up games are not conducive to mixed abilities.
At a rink like Michael’s Park, there were enough players to have line changes, so the game was five-on-five, plus us kids. We’d put our sticks in the middle like the teenagers and adults, but we’d really just split ourselves up on each team, and only attack each other. We didn’t get to touch the puck as much as everyone else, but when we did, only the opposing kids would try to get it back. Nobody said anything, it was just the natural order of the ODR.
Each game had one or two Best Players on the Ice and, unless they were jerks, they would only pass the puck. Between us, everyone found a spot. Something about the inherent danger of frozen rubber, sticks, ice and steel made everyone adjust to, and even help the Novices. As the years went on, I slowly moved up the ranks. And the higher I got, the more I hoped for kids to be there to pass to. This doesn’t happen in pick-up basketball.
At that age, we’d only go on the mild nights when one of our dads was willing to drive. As we got older, but before we could drive ourselves, we wanted to go out more, in continually worse conditions. Our dads, with fresh memories of driving us to real practices at freezing, single-digit morning hours, barely contained their laughter as they turned up the furnace and told us to walk, if we wanted to skate that bad. And, my gawd, we wanted to skate that bad.
The only thing I thought about more than playing hockey on the ODR was girls. And playing hockey on the ODR was a close second (the ideal obviously being a girl who could skate on the ODR). There were other options: we could shoot the tennis ball around in the basement, play video game hockey, or even watch a game on TV (although, like today, that was less appealing, back then). But nothing else satisfied our hockey fix like the ODR.
So we had to walk. But Michael’s Park was too far. Millwood’s Christian School was ten minutes away, but it only had the lights on once a week for shinny games, which meant that, in addition to having to clear the snow ourselves, we’d have to stay on the end of the rink near the streetlight just to kind of see the puck.
It was perfect.
I’d call my buddy Justin, or he’d call me, and we’d go through the motions like we were actually debating whether we’d brave the weather.
“Go for a skate?”
“I want to, but it’s almost -30.”
“Yeah but the wind chill isn’t too bad.”
“So…meet in the alley in ten minutes?”
The rink had a skate shack with a heater, but it wasn’t open on weeknights. That was the worst part, and the only time we questioned our sanity. But we didn’t question for long, because we only had about 60 seconds to tie our skates before the frost bit our skin. Skates laced, a couple heavy breaths on our fingers to prevent permanent damage (except the side of my left thumb), gloves on and it was time to get moving. Shoveling helped the blood flow. It was heaven.
Actually, the one winter when the maintenance guy told us he’d leave the shack open on Sunday nights if we promised to lock up – that was heaven. Anything short of a full-on storm meant we could play as long we wanted. It was our own private rink, with lights and heat.
Outside of winning the cup, the realistic hockey player’s ultimate dream is a private place to skate. No matter how small, carving up a shaved section of frozen water, with open sky and your favourite jersey flowing in the actual breeze – it almost makes you want to skip autumn altogether (almost).
Other indoor sports don’t have a comparable. Only skiers and snowboarders know what it’s like to strap something to their feet and slice through ice and snow, going faster than any human should. And they have the added glory of scenic mountains and even fresher air. Playing outdoor hockey, surrounded by mountains, has for years been number one on my bucket list (followed closely by seeing the Grand Canyon and lighting something on fire with a military-grade flame flower), and I know I’m not alone (on the mountain hockey part, at least).
For most of its history, hockey’s been a full-time outdoor sport too, even at its highest level. Children playing organized, indoor games has only been the norm since, like, the 80’s. This is the era where it’s a special treat to play outdoors, unlike the not-so-distant past, when everyone did it. Imagine the sacrifice parents made then.
The super-ultimate dream, for kids and parents alike, is told to us in St. Gretzky’s origin story:
“I had a serious addiction to hockey. I’d drag my dad over to the park every day and make him sit out there freezing his buns until bedtime. He finally got so cold he did something crazy. He turned our backyard into a hockey rink. The Wally Coliseum.
“All I wanted to do in the winters was be on the ice. I’d get up in the morning, skate from 7:00 to 8:30, go to school, come home at 3:30, stay on the ice until my mom insisted I come in for dinner, eat in my skates, then go back out until 9:00,” wrote Gretzky.
Obviously that’s insane, and I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s all there is to it: an obsessive, inhuman effort. As if anyone who grew up playing that much could at least make the show, and be amazing with just a touch of talent, but literally no one on earth besides Gretzky has actually tried, so we’ll never know for sure.
Anyways, tying up skates in the kitchen makes braving the cold the easiest thing, like a heated skate shack, only way better, because along with warmth it has cocoa and mom’s baking, blankets, and even a hot shower. I defy someone to come up with something more Canadian.
That feeling is just part of why weather made no difference to the 60,000 of us who stuffed our shoes with heat pouches and our pockets with mini-bottles of Bailey’s for the Heritage Classic in ‘03. Or why a couple hundred people only needed a few hours notice to watch the Oilers scrimmage at Hawerlak Park a few Januarys ago. Our Canadian DNA compels us. We layer and liquor up, and
run walk carefully to the cold to appreciate the sights, sounds, and nostril-clearing air that isn’t as invigorating when there isn’t a puck being slapped around a frozen pond.
The sky may be getting lighter for longer, but in these post-Christmas, dark days of winter, don’t ignore your local community rink (unless it’s plus-five during the day – you’ll only ruin the ice for everyone else). That goes double if you’re a kid who’s lucky enough to have a backyard rink. The draft is five months away and there’s half an Oilers season left before playoffs. If for no other reason, get on the ice to preserve some sanity and maybe see some wins.
Let it snow.