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.