The Gift of Hockey

As I drove back to the office after the Caps’ outdoor practice on Wednesday, I had to call my dad. It was my dad that got me into hockey when I was just a wee lad, and it was my dad who stood outside on freezing winter nights with a single green garden hose, surfacing or resurfacing our backyard ice rink. On many nights he would come back in the house with his face as red as a Santa suit, and his pants frozen solid with ice as the result of shrapnel spray from a leaky hose. Us kids would crowd around him and warm his feet with blankets and our little hands, giving him hot chocolate to help bring him back to room temperature.

He was determined that us three kids (myself and my younger brother and sister) would have a place to skate, but you could always tell he loved being out there every bit as much as we did. He’d put on his old leather skates, the ones he’d had since high school and jet around the rink with speed that I envy to this day.

We lived in north suburban Chicago in those days, and in a good winter, you could get 40 consecutive days or so worth of ice. When the ice was down, we’d get up early to take a twirl or two and shoot some pucks before school. Dad put in a bright light on the back of the house so we could skate past dark, even though it did not provide enough illumination for hockey. Most of the neighborhood kids would come down to play hockey after school and we’d go all day on weekends, when we could. There was the problem of my sister and her friends.

Since it was my dad’s effort and willingness that went into the rink, he insisted that my sister and her friends get equal time. Not really fair, thought my brother and I, since there were two of us boys and only one of her. But that was the rule: two hours of hockey, followed by two hours of “skating”, followed by two hours of hockey, etc. On weekends and Christmas break, this is how it worked. It wasn’t long before we began pooling our money to “buy” my sister’s ice time. Handfuls of quarters were used to give us six straight hours of glorious hockey time.

One year, I got enough money for my birthday to buy a hockey net. My dad then went out and bought the materials to construct another one for us. The original one had metal pipes, the facsimile was made of wood and twine. My friends and I would organize tournaments, keep statistics, and we even fashioned crude benches and penalty boxes from wood and snow.

Christmas was always time for hockey presents. New sticks, gloves, shin pads, pants, socks. A goalie mask one year. When we were really little and we lived just outside of Boston (before the move to Chicago), my brother and I awakened very early one Christmas morning. We tiptoed into the living room to see what Santa had brought us, and there was a rod hockey game, Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs. It was hard going back to bed and waiting those few hours to go down and actually play with that thing. It remains my strongest and favorite Christmas memory from my youth, and we wore that thing out over the upcoming years. Many summer days were spent organizing front porch rod hockey tournaments with the neighborhood kids, with the winner drinking Coke from a poorly fashioned replica Stanley Cup.

Living in Boston in the late 1960s is where I first caught the hockey bug. My entire life revolved around hockey in the winter. It was all my friends and I talked about. Playing hockey, watching hockey. Buying, collecting and trading hockey cards. If there was no ice, we’d play on the grass, the street or the basement floor.

The Bruins were religion then. just when Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and a colorful cast of teammates were taking the town and the league by storm. All the games were on TV, and I watched every one. Well, the first two periods anyway. My bedtime never permitted me to see an entire game on a school night, but every morning when I woke and went into the kitchen for my breakfast, there was a yellow legal pad on the table. In my dad’s less-than-legible hand (and sometimes my mom’s more readable writing), there were all the penalties, goals and assists and their corresponding teams and times. Just the ones from the third period, the ones I had missed. He’d list the three stars at the bottom, and I’d read over it all while consuming my Crispy Critters or Quisp cereal, mentally adding up Derek Sanderson’s PIM totals as I ate.

I’ve been covering the Caps day in and day out for more than a decade; this is my twelfth season on the beat. There have been a lot of ups and downs on and off the ice along the way, but it has never stopped being fun. And the people you meet in hockey are some of the best people in the world. It never gets tiring.

Some guys follow in their father’s footsteps and become lawyers or doctors or whatever their dads did for a living. Others go into the family business, and it becomes “Doe and Son(s).” My dad never pushed me into anything, ever, but he gave me a helluva gift when he introduced me to hockey those many years ago. Like the “Jelly of the Month Club,” it really has been the gift that keeps on giving. I am happy to be able to continue sharing it with him after all these years. Last spring when I was covering the Bears in Milwaukee during the Calder Cup finals, my parents made the trip up from Chicago for a couple of games. They were there on that Thursday night when the Bears won it all, and they still love talking about it. My dad is a pretty quiet guy most of the time, but mom said he was yelling loud enough for the Bears that night that heads were turning in enemy territory. He’ll be in the house tonight, watching the Caps and the Devils with his grandkids, less than a week after his grandson skated the Verizon surface as one of the “Mites on Ice.”

The Caps seemed to really enjoy Wednesday’s outdoor practice, and talking with them afterwards, it definitely took a lot of them back to their early years. When it was just a game, just something you did. Every day, all the time. Because you loved it, and you couldn’t even fathom doing anything else.

Wednesday took me back to those days, too. Those long, cold nights my dad spent outside and the nights he spent scrawling penalties and goals on a yellow pad are the reasons I am where I am and I’m doing what I’m doing today. He fretted about having a good base, scraping the ice, the weather forecasts and all sorts of things that could endanger the health of the backyard rink. If the mercury rose to the upper 30s, we were usually doomed. Another year’s rink fading under pools of water and melting “boards” meant another rapidly approaching spring.

So I called my dad on Wednesday, and told him how the Caps practiced outside, and how the ice was great even though it was 55 degrees and sunny. My own yard is too hilly and the climate in these parts is too warm for a backyard rink. I may never take another backyard twirl again, but those yearly rinks and those yellow pads have done more for me than either of us ever imagined they would.

Thanks, pop. Enjoy the game tonight.

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10 Comments on “The Gift of Hockey”

  1. Mike Ellis Says:

    Mike V.,

    What a great hockey memory! I only wish that I had grown up in an environment where I could have played on a backyard rink!

    Kudo’s to you, your Dad, and your excellent writing ability!

    I felt like I was there…

    Merry Christmas

  2. Gustafsson Says:

    This may be one of your best blog posts to date. Fabulous stuff and a wonderful Christmas story.

    My 3 year old is already “skating” in the basement shooting his foam puck with his foam stick yelling “he shoots he scores… Alexander DaDetchkin.”

    I will have to read this story to him this weekend along with the Grinch Who Stole Christmas and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

    Merry Christmas and here’s wishing you and your family a “2 Point Holiday”.

  3. Betsy Says:

    M:

    Sounds very similar to our annual winter “drill” in Detroit, but your backyard rink sounds larger and more enviable.

    I cut my hand on the metal bits more than enough times on my little brother’s damn rod hockey.

    Incidentally, there must be some odd correlation about Quisp and Cap’n Crunch cereals and little boys: Bad fuel for good hockey?

    The bane of my goalie bro’s mite-on-upward existance was the frequent opposing goalie, a young John Vanbiesbrouck. I’m sure he too had an annual ritual, facilitated by a dad or mom who inspired his initial love of the game.

    Glad to see you’re carrying on the family tradition, Mike.

  4. DaveFerret Says:

    Thanks for sharing, that was rad.

    ps i got peanuts thrown on me for being a Caps fan in Atlanta at the game last week!!

  5. jesse Says:

    haha i like the chrustmas vacation reference

  6. Drew Says:

    Mike,
    Great post (I just heard you mention it on Caps report). A DC local now and avid Caps fan, I grew up near Cooperstown NY and we had a backyard rink too. There was really no indoor ice for miles, but we played hockey everyday on our backyard rink. It really took me back when the Caps practiced outside and hearing the guys talking about playing all day and night. I loved every second of it – even shoveling the rink off and resurfacing every night. Another great reference is Jack Falla’s book Home Ice. I actually have the Sports Illustrated editorial he wrote in ’82 that he grew into the book. Great story and an inspirational read. Keep up the great work and lets go CAPS!


  7. Hello
    Thank you for your very nice story, ‘The gift of Hockey’. This is also the title of one of my books with the complete set of my stories titled “The Gifts of Hockey” The stories are based on “The Original Six” teams I can be found by going to google.com and typing in: Tommie Holmes hockey books “The Gifts of Hockey”. My book ‘The Gift of Hockey has a forward by Scotty Bowman. I’d be pleased to hear more from you and like to know how you found my address. Right now I have to go out for my morning coffee to discus Canadiens trip to the golf course. I’ll check your site later today. Thanks for getting in touch with me


  8. Hi Mike
    On reading over your story I was impressed by the 2 brothers paying off their sister so they could have the ice time. My latest story which should be available in the autumn is titled “The street hockey tournament” and it deals with a young girl trying to play shinny on an outdoor rink where the unwritten rule is ‘only boys play hockey here’. This might sound a little unusual now however the story is set in the 50’s where if a girl wanted to play shinny with the boys it was looked down upon. I can be found by going to Google and typing in: Tommie Holmes hockey story titled “The Gifts of Hockey”. This seems like a neat site and I am very pleased you found me.
    I’m from Montreal I would like to come back to your site
    Tommie Holmes

  9. Milo Says:

    Really nice read, well i had nowhere to play hokey when i was a kid….although i would have liked it from what i just read 🙂
    U mind if i put this article on my site too Free directory, will link back .

  10. Todd Westfall Says:

    Mike,

    Great stuff. I grew up in Rochester, NY, and we played on a backyard rink ’til sundown every night — I froze my big toe once by mistakenly getting my sock wet while lacing up. After we moved out a little further, we had a pond of our own, and my dad built the second goal for us, too.

    You’ve got a gift for writing and story telling. Keep it up.

    T.


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