Category Archives: rinks

A Man and his Son, A Man and his Father, and Me

I skated today for the first time in 9 weeks on this cold bright January morning.  I headed off to Vic park early, knowing the rink would be mostly mine, which is for the best as i know I’m in no shape to actually skate with others around me yet.  I took my stick and couple of pucks and felt a tiny surge of excitement to see how I felt.   There was a young man on the ice already, with his son, a boy of 5 or 6.  I skated at one end of the massive sheet, they at the other.  At one point my puck danced away and the boy was only too happy to dart over and pass it back to me.   I grinned and gave him a hearty thank you and he flashed a big smile and skated away in a burst.  There were days not so long ago where my son and daughters skated alongside with me here when they were his age.  And I remember being that small once and skating with my own father at the open air rinks in Peterborough – Bonnerworth, the Trent canal, Hillside street park.  Good memories all.

I was in my element again and it felt good.  A clean sheet of ice is the most creative thing I’ve ever known.  Turn left, turn right, quick steps to full speed, glide, turn, stick handle or let the puck do the work.  In my later years, I’ve never played the game in a way where my movements are planned.  It’s one of the beautiful parts of playing for fun, of shinny.  It’s movement guided by some primal, instinctive compass, long since obsolete now that we don’t have to outrun woolly mammoths and such.   Bobby Orr has suggested more than once that we are systemically removing the creativity of generation after generation of hockey players in favour of structure and systems.  I couldn’t agree more.

Handling the puck was magical.  My hands were fine and little strength was needed for the simple maneuvers I tried.  The burden of an injured shoulder hasn’t stolen that gem.  I was able to pass the puck off the frozen boards back to myself, and able to fire the puck smoothly along the ice at the net.  Ah, the clank of the puck hitting a pipe net at an open air rink.  A different type of pipe organ, but beautiful music indeed.

Sadly, it didn’t take long for the instinctive side of me to get overruled by my mind flashing a mental “careful” sign as I approached anything beyond the slowest speed I know.  The thinking part of the brain telling the rest of me this was premature and foolish.  A fall on to my gimpy wing would be a very bad thing.   This will be the part of playing I will miss the most if my shoulder always requires an element of caution from this point forward if at some point I am able to play again.  I may not be young anymore, but the rink is the only place in my life where I have done anything with any measure of abandon.  I was never a physical player, being not strong enough for that game, but I rarely backed away from going to the puck, or taking it to the net regardless of the opponent, and I was always happy to try the impossible pass, or slide through the slightest of lanes between players

In all, I skated only 10 minutes.  The weight of the puck on the stick for just that length of time began to play a different kind of music in my shoulder very quickly.  Pain on the end of the clavicle as it pushed up unrestricted into the muscle on the top of the shoulder. I picked up my puck and head back to the car, hopped in and started to remove my skates.  As I did so, a man about the same age as the one with the young son already on the rink walked by with an older man by his side who was obviously his father.  Skates on sticks over shoulders, toques on heads, they headed to the sheet I had just left.

I have been the young boy, and I have been the young father.  Shoulder be damned, I will be the old man in skates and toque yet.

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Ski Week Without Hockey

When I was at Uni, I would come home to Peterborough during ski (reading) week each year.  I remember one particular year where I was looking forward to some R&R and a little hockey and being big time disappointed when a big thaw hit either just as the break arrived or shortly thereafter, washing all the open air rinks into a slushy mess.

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This Isn’t Normal and Why We Are Lucky Here in Canada

At our game last night in Elmira, a teammate who is a well-traveled cat made the comment about how lucky we are to place in such a fine facility.  He travels so much he hasn’t had a chance to play all that regularly over the past few years and he marveled about how nice it was to be home for an extended period and be able to play consistently.  He said it’s truly a wonderful country where there is peace, jobs and recreation like hockey that can still be enjoyed by old blokes like us.

He mentioned that in the Czech Republic, he has a friend who lives in a pretty serious hockey town there and that friend just cannot understand how adults are still playing here.  The rub?  In his town ( a pretty fair sized town), there is only one indoor arena and the ice time goes to the kids.  This guy was incredulous that we have multiple, multi-pad rinks in a single town.

My friend noted that there are few places in the world he has traveled that compare to Canada with respect to the good fortune its citizens enjoy.  “This isn’t normal” was his final comment.

Lucky indeed, yes we are.

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Shoveling The Rink

Ah, the beauty and the beast of the Great White North’s winter season.  The cold being the beauty that gives life to the treasured outdoor rink.  The beast being the snow, sleet, rain and combinations thereof that transform the act of shoveling the rink to something between a minor annoyance and a heart-attack inducing hell-on-blades (or double-double-hell-on-boots if you’ve ever tried to get traction shoveling snow off a rink in boots).

I remember playing as a kid on outdoor rinks in parks and there would usually be a couple of shovels left at the rink or donated from a nearby neighbour.  Sometimes we’d bring one if we knew it was needed.  It was the recreational equivalent of a self-service economy.  When the rink got snowy enough from just too much skating we would sometimes take the multi-shovel approach and have a bunch of guys lined up to go across the ice in parallel the way multiple plows sometimes clear a multi-lane highway.

This worked great for minor league snow but when mother nature really unloaded, that didn’t cut it.  No, for a big snow fall, the ways we normally approached the chore of making the rink skateable again was to clean the snow off just the minimum amount of the ice-pad needed to start a game.  When more ice was needed (because more kids showed up), more snow tended to get  shoveled only when the newcomers picked up the shovels already warm from those who had gotten their first and already made their ice bones.

Then there was the snow followed by rain followed by cold scenario where the skating surface could only be found after twenty three hours of chipping and hacking one’s way through the tundra for three straight days a little bit at a time.  This of course was the ultimate in discouraging and we usually ended up too tired to play by the time we had hacked our way to even the smallest patch of ice.   In the event we weren’t too tired, it often ended in a ridiculous game with too many players using a small patch of ice roughly 312 square feet.  (Ridiculous, but highly conducive to developing good stick-handling skills.)

There was also the rain followed by snow followed by cold scenario which was the worst of the worst for in this situation, there was no distinct sheet of ice below – just a hard layer of something that had about an inch of ice / snow / cold guck that wasn’t skateable and was really only a semi-level surface on which was required another forty one million gallons of water to build it up to hard ice.    This was the closest thing to a rink that was going to die without being skated on ever again – or until a good enough thaw came along to melt most of the top guck into water at which point prayers for a cold snap at just the right point in time were our best plan for hockey on some day soon.


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Several years ago, when the Crowley backyard rink was the centre of family action in the winter months, my youngest flipped a stick upside-down and attempted to control the puck with the end of the stick instead of the blade.  She was imitating a neighbourhood friend who played ringette, but given our rink was always littered with the pucks her brother and I shot endlessly around her (and probably far too close to her on several occasions) instead of rings, she had to make do with the materials at hand.

She promptly dubbed her own game “puckette” and for the next winter or two, enjoyed playing a unique blend of hockey and ringette that could only have been born on an L-shaped family rink alongside a father and brother.

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Begging For Shinny

I snapped this shot on my way to work a couple of days ago in downtown Kitchener.   Classic January morning in Canada – an open air rink, freshly flooded looking for action.

Freshly Flooded

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Things That Matter, Things That Don’t

Brian Burke got fired.  Yawn.  The circle of life and death that is Toronto Maple Leaf hockey continues.

What does matter, and is truly a little bit sad though, is the warm weather hitting southern Ontario over next few days because there are tons of outdoor rinks just nicely established that will  shortly disappear into puddles of water.  Old fashioned winters don’t happy often enough around here any more.


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Christmas Ice

One of the great things about the Christmas season is spending time with family and friends.  It’s a cliche, but it’s true.  Squeezing in a game or two of hockey with old buddies fits nicely into this category.

For those of us lucky enough to have kids who play the game as well, Christmas sometimes gives us a chance to don the blades and play with them.  I had that chance this past week with my son, who invited me out late one night for a game of shinny on an open-air neighbourhood rink with his buddies.

There were some other blokes playing as well on a rink that was too small to hold all of us so we split into two shifts of about four or five to each side.  There was even a goalie there with full equipment who had just finished taking it all off just as we got there, and seeing that a new game was forming, he threw it all back on and went back to the cage.  We had nets at both ends, and the ice was a mess after having been skated on all day but it didn’t stop us.

What a grand night.  I didn’t play long, perhaps a half hour.  I chirped the young bucks and chatted with some of the strangers who by the end of the game were like old friends.  Then I went home and flopped on the couch and fell asleep.  Life truly does not get any better than this.  What a blast.

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The Love Affair That Is A Rink

There is something wonderful about building a rink.  It’s one of those must-do things in life if you love winter and your kids.  I’ve built (or helped build) many and have come to the conclusion that there is a dual zen for the rink builder in this life – the passion and emotion that bubbles forth when one begins an icy new affair in the late fall of each year, and the ongoing love affair with it once it is built.

For my rinks, one of two approaches was used in the rink courtship stage.  First, there was the brute force method where getting started meant tramping down every inch of snow in the yard with my boots, wetting it as I moved with a hose.  This required a heavy dose of patience (it took me eight straight hours to do this one year for a fairly modest sized backyard rink) and warm clothing but when this first step was completed, I usually had a base ice-pad that was skate-able enough for the wee ones (and me) to get going on.  You really had to love this girl to stay with this approach year after year.

After I took to readin’, I saw the wisdom in the high tech approach of building a perimeter out of lumber, lining it with plastic, turning the hose on then heading inside and gazing out the window, sometimes with a drink in hand, while the liner filled up.  When it was all full, I would turn off the hose off and wait for winter to transform our giant, shallow, backyard pool into a gleaming surface that enthralled our kids and others in the neighbourhood for as long as the weather held.

I remember using this approach for the first time on Christmas eve at least ten years ago.  I think I needed a re-fill or two of my drink because it took a long time to fill up the liner with water.  However, this approach was much warmer than the brute force method and it didn’t require me to leave my boots on an indoor grate for three days to dry out afterwards.  It was still love but if the weather didn’t cooperate, you didn’t have quite as much invested in this relationship as with the brute force method and could find solace in the fact that there were plenty of other rinks in the yard in future seasons.

Alas, like all loves in this life though, there is the honeymoon period and then everything that comes after.   A rink is no exception.  For those of you scoffing at this as you read, I submit you have never built a rink.  Build one and maintain it for a winter, before you write me off as more than a little offside.

Yes, with the rink-building honeymoon over, the rink builder settles into the pattern of taking care of his love for remainder of its winter days.   This is not to suggest the magic goes out of this love once the rink is built.  On the contrary, once you have ice that is skated on regularly, the magic of flooding it on a cold winter night is itself a labour of love.  It might be the early days when it’s only been skated on a few times and the bumps are still being worn down.  It might be late in the season after a hundred games have been played, a thousand pucks shot or untold numbers of pirouettes have been performed flawlessly.   Regardless, there is nothing more serene than being outside late at night, winter cold all around you, and a hose in your hand coursing water over the tired ice.   The water splays out as it hits the ice and seeps as far and wide as it can before the cold defeats it and turns it into a thin, clear, solid surface.

If you’re lucky, the moon will be out with all its star buddies and the sky will be the dark cold blue / black that only happens in the dead of winter.  When you’ve covered the entire surface, it’s always a treat to stand back and listen to it freeze.  You can actually hear it.  A snap, a crackle, (a pop?) and lots of quiet in between.  The light of the moon is wonderful to see on the dark surface.  It’s a treat to bend down on one’s knees to view across the ice sheet from up close.   It really is.  Once back inside, a good rink maker doesn’t turn his back on his rink for like any love, she’s a beautiful a thing to behold from every distance, every angle.  With the lights off, the beauty of the flat black ice surface is really a cool thing to behold.

Now, there is much I didn’t’ cover here – many of the subtleties that I didn’t get into for as you know, love is a many-splendoured thing.  There is the painting of blue lines and red lines if you’re so inclined.  Or perhaps a goalies crease.  There is the entire ritual around the proper way to shovel and clean a rink as well as how to properly build the snow banks around it as winter grows up.  I’ll write about those another day.

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Pucks in Snowbanks

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.

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