For anyone of my generation who has been fortunate enough to play into their old-timer years, the passing of these years has almost always offered the chance to play in umpteen rinks of every possible description in umpteen different places. In small towns, big cities, rich private schools, universities and colleges, fairgrounds and even shopping centres – you name it, arenas can be found in lots of places. Some are shiny new ones with bars, restaurants and seventeen ice pads, some are middle-age arenas with no fancy frills but with reliable ice plants and zamboni / olympia’s and some are badly aging relics with quirks unheard of in their more modern brethern.
And as unique as these ice temples can be, so too can be the benches they contain. I recall some benches that were built for era’s where each team carried only eight players – six on the ice and two on the bench. I don’t actually know if there was such an era but I seem to recall old hockey pictures where it looks like this was the case. I can remember playing on some of these in high school or my latter house league days in tournaments. These benches would force us to stack players two deep with the guys playing less frequently standing up behind the actual bench.
There were benches that we so short that even if you could fit all the players on them, you always had one or two guys squished behind the doors at each end. I remember playing on one of these at one point when we were just getting old enough to change by going over the boards instead of out the doors. This was a necessity when playing on such a bench so that day, we all had to learn in a hurry. Ouuffff – that day we became men!
There was one bench one night with so much ice built up near it that we could not get it closed. This is a bit dangerous in a contact game so we had to stuff a spare stick up against the latch on the inside to keep it as closed as we could without it being closed.
There have been more than a few rinks where the designer failed to account for the fact that if the ice isn’t fairly close to the same level as the bottom of the bench on the inside, going over the boards is like falling out of an airplane. That extra six inch drop feels like a mile until you get used to it. Same goes for going out the door on such rinks. When you expect to step out and hit the ice, only to find yourself dropping, it’s a little unnerving.
There have been benches that were so far back from the actual boards that changing by going over the boards meant literally throwing yourself half sideways, half forwards, half upwards hoping you had enough distance, altitude and lift that you’d somehow come down on the other side with both wheels down.
There have been benches that you needed a stack of books to sit on in order to see the game over the boards in front of you, as well as some that were high enough you felt like you were in the first row behind the bench you were up so high.
There have been benches with the boards in front all hallowed out on the inside from players kicking at them and those that have the flooring worn right through exposing some skate-dulling surface (concrete works excellent) right around the door so as you step off the ice, you take another shot of sharpness of your blades for the next shift.
There have been benches with doors so uncooperative you’d swear they weren’t meant to open. (Another trigger for learning to go over the boards if you were young).
For most players, even the good ones who play the most, you actually spend more time on the bench than on the ice. It’s important to have a good bench, a solid bench, a bench that will get you through the game. It needs to support you when you’re gassed, it needs to shield you when you’ve just chirped a ref or a guy on the other team who is bigger than you and it needs to be comfortable enough to allow you to enjoy the game when you’re not playing, a fate that befell me more than a few times as a high schooler.
The humble bench, rarely written about or strategized around, has nonetheless been immortalized in a several words, albeit some not necessarily specific to hockey. “Riding the pine” or being “benched” is for those who sit more than play, as is the term “bench-warmer”. The notion of “bench strength” has long referred to the depth of a team.
And to finish up this topic with a bit of romance, it is said that Bill LaForge, the legendary (and some would say insane) former Ontario junior coach used to measure the quality of some games by referring to the number of “bench clears” that he was able to incite.