…in those days winters seemed to be long and cold. I often tell people today that when the snow came it stayed. It was deep in drifts with a purity of the colour white that was difficult to describe, especially on those cloudless, bright sunny days against the backdrop of a sky that was an unbelievable shade of blue. The sun was so blindingly bright. It was on days like that that a young lad like me couldn’t wait to get up, get out of the house with my skates and stick and run up there to the park and get on to that clear, blue tinged sheet of ice. The ultimate thrill was being the first to grace that snowless expanse of smooth frozen water, as it was flooded the night before by a city caretaker. Like a winter’s magic carpet it transported a young lad like me to a fantasy world that was etched only by my skates, with the freedom and ease of movement that was pure athletic ecstasy. Gliding, soaring, twirling: forward then backwards, sliding and turning or stopping on a dime, all by myself, alone in the whole wide world, to dream of hockey prowess and to dream of hockey glory. To be alive! Then alas, like a sheet of glass the illusion is shattered as others arrive to enjoy and partake in this winter’s offering. Soon the rink is packed with boys and girls with the odd parent or grownup all trying to claim their own bit of freedom’s frozen grace and elegance. As the day progressed the rink became clogged: the ice transforming itself into a whitish brown coloured slush, which impedes any chance of moving a puck gracefully. It will only come alive again at days end when the caretaker, all alone on the rink with his own thoughts, clears the ice of snow then rejuvenates it again with its life giving water.
The best time to go to the outdoor rink to avoid the crowds is during a school night. Unfortunately one had to convince the parents that homework was done – correctly – with the promise of being home at a reasonable hour. The lucky ones were those who lived adjacent to the park for there was little effort on their part in being able to get out there. There were very few of us on the rink during a school night. Either they were having a difficult time with their schoolwork; wanted to watch some nebulous TV program; or it was frightenly cold out there. The cold didn’t seem to bother me and out I went as often as I could for I wanted that ice surface all to myself, or perhaps with just a few of my closest friends. The rink wasn’t lit at night artificially, directly, but for the natural light that emanated from the stars on a clear night; from the moon when there was one; or from the green, magnetic, sinuous hues of the northern lights; or from the artificial backdrop of the street lights and house lights.
There we were with our skates, parkas, toque perhaps, no helmets, gloves or mitts, blue jeans and the like. Red rosy cheeks, with clear, warm snot running down from our noses. Sniff, sniff and sniff again. We were a chorus of sniffs: soon to be yellow tinged icicles hanging, dangling from our nostrils and the cleft of our chins. But hey, it was healthy snot! On top of that, tingling toes and burning fingers signalling the early onset of frostbite – but we didn’t care. We were alive and young, and free. The faster we flew on our blades the warmer we felt and exhilarated by the sweet nectar of being alive.
We would set up a couple of goals and play a form of pond hockey. The sound of slapping sticks or pucks to wooden blades: the swishing, whishing and crunching sounds of our metal blades on ice were the only sounds to be heard. Of course there was also the odd whooping, whistling and ribbing sounds coming from someone’s mouth when a deek, a fake or a shot of speed was masterfully executed. Laughing, sometimes arguing, ranting and definitely cursing when a puck went astray off the ice and into the snow. Normally we could find it but on those rare occasions when we couldn’t find the puck in the snow banks we came up with our favourite “Barrel Jumping” competition…