First comes the freezing rain, coating the houses, cars, trees and bushes, roads and sidewalks. Then comes the rain. Temperatures rise to about +5º C. Then, a flash freeze drops the thermostat to -20º C. It happens a couple of times a season. It happened here yesterday. In such weather, people fall on the ice running for a bus and break arms, or worse. Cars slide off the roads on “black ice”. Traffic crawls. On days like this many people just stay at home and don’t go to work. Ugh! Horrible winter weather.
It may be bad for others, but when the weather is like this it’s a perfect day for kids. Schools close. Kids get to play at whatever they want: pull out their Xboxes or their Sony PlayStations, their laptops, their ipads or whatever else they have to network with their friends. They play video games or chat over the internet. All indoors. In times gone by, you went outside.
As a kid, these types of days were the best days of winter, and maybe even of the entire year. As soon as the ice covered everything and temperatures began to drop, on would go the ice skates, out would come the hockey sticks and pucks, and maybe the knee pads would be put on, held on with heavy elastic bands or kept neatly in place under long hockey socks emblazoned with the colours of your favourite hockey team. While it made you look and feel like a real hockey player to wear those socks and pads and it protected your knees in case you fell or were whacked on the shins by a wayward stick slash, fall on the road against a stone protruding through the ice or against an unfrozen piece of asphalt could ruin those beautiful socks, keeping you from wearing them at future games on real ice. Hockey socks were expensive, and if you were lucky you might get a single pair for Christmas. A second pair was seldom in the cards until next Christmas. Sometimes, though, if weather conditions were just right, you just had to risk it.
Skating on the road is the ultimate winter luxury. The first skate is a bit like stepping onto a recently flooded rink at the hands of cherished Zamboni – the ice is smooth, it’s easy to cut into and you can make turns sharply. And the best thing about ice on the roads is that the cars stay off until the snow comes – which it does inevitably after such changing weather.
I remember playing hockey outside on the roads for hours. He shoots, he scores! He shoots, he saves. Over and over, up and down the road. And after we cut up the ice to ribbons and ground our skate blades into oblivion, it is time to play ball hockey. When it got dark you could still see the ball under the street lights, and we played until mom yelled it was time to come home. With such determination, is it any wonder Canada became such a dominant hockey nation?
It was the NHL’s recent Winter Classic that triggered my memory of those outdoor skating days gone by. It was a major sports event in Canada last weekend (even though it was played in the US city of Detroit). The Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings played outdoors in freezing temperatures in front of thousands of crazy and delirious fans. “A unique and memorable experience”, said a radio announcer. Well, in my days playing outside on the roads or on outdoor rinks was what you did.
Which brings me to the subject of playing on outdoor rinks.
I can remember walking the three miles to Silverwoods outdoor rink to play organized hockey. I’d leave the house with my stick over my shoulder, my skates tied around the stick blade, my hockey bag tucked under my arm, dressed in my uniform and pads. I’d meet up with my friends and then off we would go. It took us over an hour to get there. Down Hale Street to Trafalgar. And from there, we would follow the CNR railway tracks to Silverwoods. Sometimes the wind would blow from the west and it would get bitterly cold following those tracks. There was no shelter along the way, except at the Highbury underpass, and there was no way we would ever stop there anyways because there were hobos close by. We could always spot them a short distance away (on the other side of the tracks). Sometimes they had a canvass tent, other times just a big piece of cardboard shelter or plywood left from a previous user. They always had fires burning. They’d be warming themselves, usually with a can of food sitting in the fire. We kept our distance and walked as fast as we could to Silverwoods. If the walk was in the daylight it was okay, but coming back from an early evening game in the dark it was downright scary.
I guess the hobos were the reason I never was too interested in playing organized hockey. Maybe it was the long walk back from Silverwoods. Just maybe it was the fact I really wasn’t that good.
I remember my last game in organized hockey. It was the day we played against Normie Stringle’s team. I remember that he was shorter than me but kind of chubby. He always wore a white sweater and socks, even when he played with a team in blue sweaters. It was his trademark to wear white and no one seemed to be able to convince (or threaten) him to do otherwise. He could skate as fast as anyone I had ever seen on skates. I think there were many kids like me who had never really met him but we all knew about him. Normie was the best, and he was special.
My last game was on a cold and windy day. It tired me just skating up the ice. A bit like that NHL Classic, perhaps. The first period for us was with the wind and when it started to snow, there were small snowdrifts that started to form in the corners. Every few minutes the referee would blow his whistle and kids would have to grab a shovel and scoop up the snow that had accumulated on the rink. Unfortunately for me, I spent most of the first period on the bench. Being handed a shovel several times by the coach was actually my salvation for it warmed me up and I strategized while doing the clean-up that I was saving my energy for later in the game.
When play resumed after each clean-up, the script was always the same. Normie would score every time he got the puck, which was frequently. He would dipsie doodle from one side of the ice to the other and then he would stickhandle with the puck, leaving our team watching him in awe as he skated past.
In the second period with the wind at our backs, our coach put me in. I knew I could shoot with the best of them, but as a skater, I also knew that I was slow and awkward and definitely needed more ice time to improve my skills (the coach unfortunately did not share these views – I was deep third string). When I got my chance, I was told to play centre. There I stood at centre ice against Normie. Despite my apprehension, I somehow won the face off and quickly passed the puck to my friend Ron Blewitt. Sadly for me, at that same moment I passed the puck I fell. My stick somehow caught Normie’s skate as I fell, causing him to fall to the ice and hit his shoulder. The referee saw that it was not deliberate and chose to not call a penalty. Meanwhile Ron was skating up the ice alone and he proceeded to shoot the puck past the other team’s goalie. What a moment. Elated, I got up off my feet and skated to Ron. We smacked gloves together. Everyone was happy. Everyone, that is, except Normie, who had remained on the ice, writhing in pain. The other team’s coach raced out to see him. My coach raced out to see him. Kids on the other team raced out to see him. Then they all started skating towards me and swearing at me for injuring their star player. I quickly retired to the bench and pretended to tie my skate lace, my head conveniently placed below the top of the boards. I then tied my other skate lace. And then I adjusted my socks. All below the top of the boards. In what seemed like an interminable amount of time, I peeked over the boards and saw Normie get up, slowy skating with a number of his teammates to his bench. My coach returned and proceeded to lecture me about how valuable a player like Normie Stringle was and how unsportsmanlike it was to injure the best player in the league. He told me I would have to sit on the bench until I had given proper thought to the magnitude of my actions. And sit I did. No shoveling, just sitting and more sitting.
Normie’s coach sat him out for the rest of the second period and we managed to keep his team from scoring. In the third period, Normie suited up and they put him in goal, perhaps to give him some action that would keep him from freezing to death on the bench. Which is what I was doing by then. With just a couple of minutes left in the game, the coach asked me if I had learned my lesson. “Of course”, I said, my teeth chattering. He put me on with my friend Wayne Northey. We managed to get the puck into the other team’s end. I was in the slot – directly in front of the net – and the puck suddenly came out to me. I had a clear shot on net. I let one go toward the top corner of the net. As it turned out, Normie was not just a prolific goal scorer; he was also a talented goalie. He caught the puck with his glove, robbing me of a certain goal. He quickly dropped the puck in front of him and proceeded to begin stickhandling with the heavy goal stick and his heavy goalie pads, skating right at me. He clipped me as he went by and I fell to the ice. He dipsied again, doodled some more and stickhandled by our entire team before raising the puck into our goal. As I lay on the ground, looking down the ice I watched him score. “The greatest hockey player ever”, I thought.
As we walked home past the hobo field near the underpass a CNR freight train roared loudly by us with its whistle shrieking. It cut off the view of the other side of the tracks, somehow comforting us. I said to my friend Wayne as the hobos were obscured from sight that I much preferred playing on our own rink in his backyard. Wayne nodded and agreed. I never played at Silverwoods again and despite keeping my eyes and ears open for the latest hockey news, I never heard anything more of Normie Stringle.