There aren’t many sports where the central piece of sporting equipment goes missing mid-game, especially in pickup / amateur versions of a game. Footballs, volleyballs, soccer balls and basketballs rarely disappear during a game. Horses don’t usually run away during equestrian events and shotputs and javelins don’t get tossed that far.
However in some sports, the central artifact just goes missing and will need to be replaced. Golf has the lost ball. The ball can go into the drink, the woods, the rough or a million other places for most duffers. Baseballs can get hit right out of the park and even lucky fishing lures can get snagged and lost forever in the deep.
Hockey has this element of loss as well. Pucks go up into the stands all the time in arenas. It’s just part of the game. But on this night, when the forecast is for the first snow of the season (a bit late if you ask me but weathermen are no friends of mine given the weeney winters we’ve had lately), I started thinking about how fresh snow introduced a dangerous element to the outdoor game of shinny – the lost puck.
I’ve written about the different things used in place of a real puck (ie. the sponge puck, chunk of ice, floor hockey puck and of course the plain ‘ol ball) but on outdoor ice, in a game with no goalies or little kids, a real puck is always the preferred choice. The challenge with a real puck is that it is hard and heavy and when it goes AWOL, it really goes AWOL. A puck driven hard into a snowbank, either from a shot that missed the net or an errant pass or from someone who purposely wanted to see how deep into the tundra they could shoot a puck, (a CSI-Sudbury episode around snow forensics is forming here) can be a difficult thing to find.
When really drilled, and when the banks are hard, a puck will leave a clean wound in the snow. Good eyes and determination will find this puck every time though. However, if the snow banks are made of the light, powdery stuff that got dumped there from a very recent shovelling, a puck will blow through this stuff and disguise its entrance cleverly. Good eyes are even more important in this scenario.
Conceptually, this shouldn’t be difficult. A puck is black, snow is white. However, the ultimate test if at night. I remember many nights following a puck’s path into a distant snow bank from the farthest place on the ice. A bunch of players were usually doing the same and we’d all gather at the snowbank a few seconds later, a primitive sort of triangulation, to search for it. The funny part is that after about two seconds, the snowbank would be so hacked by the thrashing of sticks that the entry point would be obliterated. The bigger and deeper the snowbank, the more we were compromising the crime scene.
There was usually some kid willing to drop to both knees to be the hero and work like an arctic gopher to dig his / her way into the bank to find it. Sometimes it would be the little kids who weren’t playing. In our backyard rink, when my son and I used to rip them over the net into the neighbour’s yard, we’d send my youngest daughter and her buddy after them calling them our “puck finders”. This got a bit risky when the neighbours got a dog as they were prone to finding the wrong kind of black puck frozen in the snow.
In winters where the ice was good but the snow banks weren’t that high, a puck would often jump the rink’s banks and skitter and roll a good distance. I can remember clearly how this often resembled a stone skipping on water before it sank. Once again, good eyes were the key because you weren’t using the location of the entry point as your recovery strategy, you were relying on being able to follow a track of the puck across the snow. With virgin snow, this track was clear and where it came to a stop, you’d usually find the puck. Where a million kids had trampled the snow in search of other pucks lost since the last snow, this could be trouble.
In a Darwinian sort of evolution, every outdoor rink playing kid learned that you should always carry spare pucks. In today’s antiseptic arena atmosphere, there’s always someone with a bag or bucket of pucks. However, as a kid crawling through a field with guarded skates on, or walking a good distance to play with buddies, carrying more than a few of these was just extra baggage. I remember more than once going home only when the last puck got lost.