Growing up as a boy in the 70's in Minnesota playing hockey outside was a part of my life. It usually wasn't "pond hockey," although if we had an early freeze with no snow we might skate on nearby Lake Minnetonka, but rather at the local outdoor rink and warming house next to city hall. It was probably about a half a mile from home by car but if you took the railroad tracks on foot it was only half that long. Every year there was an anticipation to the start of the outdoor ice season and we'd be checking the status of the ice constantly once the weather cooperated and they started flooding the rink.
My brother and I used to tramp down to the rink almost daily once it opened carrying our sticks and skates over our shoulders like a couple of hobos. On Saturdays we sometimes would also be toting bag lunches that Mom packed for us since we'd often spend the whole day skating. We always wanted to play hockey at the rink but it wasn't always possible. If there weren't enough guys for a game we'd spend hours ripping "slappers", often until our sticks broke. If there was snow on the ice and we couldn’t shovel it off we'd take off our skates and play "boots" with a tennis ball.
When you were younger you always wanted to play with the "big kids" on the hockey rink and took every opportunity to hone your skills and prove that you were good enough to skate with them. Then one day you were a big kid and you got to make the rules. Like no lifting of the puck. Or a goalie has to stay in the net. And throwing your sticks in the middle and having somebody--with their hat pulled over their eyes to avoid favoritism--throw sticks to each side to pick teams.
We played for hours at a time stopping only when we were exhausted or it was time for the rink to close. Sometimes when the weather was really cold they wouldn't open the warming house. We'd go down there anyway and lace up our skates in the elements trying to get them on as quickly as possible to avoid the bitter cold that stung your bare hands as you tugged on the laces.
We didn't learn breakouts or how to play a neutral zone trap but we did learn how to skate and stick handle as that was what the game was all about. We played for the sure joy of hockey and the camaraderie that we experienced with our fellow rink rats.
Inevitably the weather would warm and the ice would be gone. We usually would make at least one more trek down to the rink in the look for pucks that had been shot over the boards and lost in the snow during the winter. The spring thaw left them exposed and some years we would find thirty or forty of these black rubber treasures. We'd bring em' home and store em' in the garage to wait for the next season.
Today, I live less than a block from an outdoor rink in a suburb of Minneapolis. And just like when I was a kid once December rolls around I start checking almost daily to see if they've started flooding it. The season seems much shorter now. I suppose that's the influence of me getting older. Everything seems to go by much faster. But I still try to get out and skate as much as I can every winter.
I can't go to the local rink anymore and expect to find a game. It seems as if few kids skate outdoors these days and most of the time I'm the only one down there. I lace up my skates anyway and can spend hours skating and shooting on a quiet winter's night. The sounds of the game are much more noticeable outside. The puck slams off the boards and echoes into the darkness. You actually hear your stick as it hits the ice on a shot or when your skates cut up the crisp ice as you turn and glide across it.
On Saturday mornings, I set off early in quest of a game. There's a rink at Lewis Park in the nearby suburb of Edina with immaculately groomed ice where a good game can usually be found. Fifteen to twenty guys, ranging anywhere in age from twenty to fifty, gather there on Saturday mornings and we can play for two to three hours before the ice gets too chewed up to carry on. There's nothing better than playing outside on a sunny day with temps in the twenties. After a short time you're down to a sweatshirt and jeans or sweatpants but you're not cold at all. In fact you're working up quite a sweat skating up and down the ice, stick handling and passing around eight or nine guys trying to stop you, all the while trying to remember if the guy in the red hooded jacket is on your team or not. Just like being a kid again.
Are they making ice yet?