The framing for the hockey rink would start as early as mid-October. The stakes to support the boards had to be in the ground before it froze over. The boards would be up by mid-November, usually after first snow.
Once the ground was frozen and a hard cold had set in the rink could be flooded. The janitors from our public school would run a thick black hose out from the school and run hot water to lay down the first flood for the rink. The first flood led to a 24 hour extravaganza of ice forming, more flooding, repeat and repeat while we watched in anticipation before going home for dinner.
Sometimes, we would return afterwards, the night cold and black, sometimes snowing, to watch the men flood the rinks one more time, never questioning who was more mesmerized. The nascent pleasure rink surrounded by heaps of snow, the hockey rink with its lights up, ready to be turned on.
School days, everyone skated at recess. Lessons would stop early so skates could be put on. Everyone looked forward to the pleasure rink. No one was supposed to play tag, so recess was a madhouse of tag, played by girls and boys. Girls played tag with girls, boys with boys, and boys and girls played tag with each other. All on the same rink at the same time. It was the essence of anarchy. The thrill of being chased by a mad group of 6, 7, 8 year old girls, providing a sudden sense that everything is so much better, so much wilder with girls.
Of course, after school, everything changed. Mothers or fathers would arrive and skate. Tag was out; parents had no problems shouting, “Little boys! Stop playing Tag!”
It wasn’t really tag. Wrestling on skates would be a better description. Around and around we would go, grab hats, throw them into the snow to start things off. Chase, grab, all while skating as fast as possible. The best was when you got hold of the sleeve of a coat that had not been done up. If you timed it just right, you could spin your opponent so his arm wrenched out of one sleeve of his coat. Now, you could use that extra length of coat to spin and whip him around until he fell over, or went flying into one of the snow banks surrounding the rink.
Sometimes my grandfather would come to skate. My mother and he had ice-danced together when she was younger. She told me they would appear in civic ice-skating shows up North when my grandfather was a forest ranger, and he would be stationed in towns like Pembroke and Kapuskasing.
I had never seen black figure skates before. I asked my grandfather what was wrong with his skates. He laughed and said “Not everyone plays hockey.” He would step onto the ice with my mother and skate in time, arms wrapped around each other’s waists, feet lifting in tandem. People would stop to admire them. The two of them did very little dancing, sometimes a quick twirl, or my grandfather would turn and skate backwards in time with my mother (as fast and as well as the hockey players I wished I could be). People would watch them — those who knew me would say to me “Your grandfather is a wonderful skater.”
They never mentioned my mother who was beautiful, a wonderful skater and had a movie star smile. But my grandfather would wear a black suit, dress shirt and tie, black Homburg, grey dress gloves, not a snow jacket and toque, when he skated with my Mom. He drew all eyes as he strode into each step with her, to emphasize the line, the speed (he was a tall and an elegant man), always matching my Mom, who smiled effortlessly.
Hockey was what it was all about. I remember racing through my dinner so I could go back to the rink to play. Running up the hill in snow boots, hockey stick over my shoulder with my skates slung on it. Impatiently putting my cold skates on, stamping my feet to get them warm, taking a few turns around the pleasure rink getting the leather supple, sitting back down and tightening the laces until the skates were so tight it felt like no blood could possibly get to my feet. Then stepping onto the hockey rink, smacking my stick on the ice, indicating I’m there to play.
There was a limit to how many people could be on the hockey rink. Ten a side was not unheard of, but everyone agreed it tended to slow the game down. Further, the rink was barely regulation — it was about three–quarter sized. Iit was perfect for a game of three on three, or four on four. We played shinny – no raising the puck, no checking (bumping and jostling are OK — that’s just part of the game). No one wore helmets — a few had hockey gloves. All you really needed was skates and a stick.
The start of the game was always the same. Everyone would skate to centre ice and throw their sticks in a pile and the two captains/ best skaters/ oldest boys would push the sticks into two piles and you would get your stick from one pile and that was your team. In most instances, the divisions were fair — each team would have a mix of starting, promising, good, and one or two fierce hockey players.
Players would line up against the player on the other team who was their match. You would think the best players would steal the puck from the weakest — but it was the opposite. The only moment the fastest guys were interested was when the other fastest players had the puck — then the game was on. Twisting, skating at impossible speeds, they would dart and swoop, dodging between little smallest (who, honest to God, would sometimes fall down, blasted by the wake of their flight), one aside, astride, behind the other, hacking, trying to lift the stick from the ice to steal the puck, all while racing in circles and figure eights past lesser beings. This would  end in either a goal or the puck being deliberately passed to one of the younger players — often the one lying on the rink — while the combatants would retire to the side to catch their breath.
The rules of the playground translated to the rink. There is no other way to describe the even division of pick up teams. Time outs — when all the little kids had to get off the ice so the teens could play unhindered. All on — when everyone was allowed on, and a young wizard of the puck could be seen squarely putting a missed pass onto the stick of a six year old chugging down the rink, racing to the impossibly far away goal, while another teenage defender skated backwards in front of that soon-to-be NHL forward ever so slowly, skates wide spread, swaying slightly from left to right, describing gentle arcs on the ice, before he would make a failed slap at the puck and a six year old slap shot rang out.
Again, often accompanied by a falling down.
Sometimes the puck went in — if the goalie wasn’t in net. But no one laughed. Instead — they cheered. “C’mon — skate, skate, shoot, shoot!”
Picture a wave of 6 and 7 year olds, on a break — 7 to 2 — the puck shuffles between them, always just in front, half of them skating on their ankles, looking more like a football team than a hockey team, and in front of them, lazily skating backwards, a big boy (a teenager) shouting to his friend in goal “Here they come! Are you ready?”
“I’m not sure we can handle them all!”
“We’re going to have to try!”
Letting the swarm within about six feet of the goal, then swiping the puck from them onto the “goaltender’s” stick, who would then shoot it the length of the ice (no icing). The two would wait for the tide to turn, head back to retrieve the puck, before assembling again, starting back up the ice en masse, determined to get it right this time.
This would last until the human wall fell down due to exhaustion. (This is how you build great hockey players.)
The gentle democracy of the well policed ice rink. By the kids, for the kids. There were no adults after school was closed. It didn’t matter. It was the neighbourhood rink and a certain … decorum … was expected.
A final picture — to evoke the beauty of that place, that time. It is night. A light snowfall fills the air with points of light as snowflakes drift out of the dark into the glare of the lights. As you approach the rink, before you can fully see who is there, you hear it — the slap of puck, the boom as it hits the boards, the keening of blades on ice, an indescribable sound as if the song implicit in the pre-game grinding of skate blades is allowed to sing. And the sight as you came closer — the game is four on four, and the game is on. No longer just teenage boys — these are the best, adults and teens. Age doesn’t matter — you get on the ice if you can play.
How they fly! They wear light jackets because they are sweating in the cold, steam rising above them. Most wear hockey gloves — some wear helmets. Their hair streams behind them. Often the only sound ragged breathing, quick shouts, grunts.
The game is shinny and the game is speed. That simple. They chase the puck. Pick it up along the boards. Come from behind the net in a formation of three, a delta of flight, man behind carrying the puck (you must always protect the puck). Qait to the last moment to pass to the next man, who in an instant passes ahead to the net to the lead skater who races, possessed to be there, at the net, at the exact moment when the puck must hit the blade of the stick and tip into the goal. Scores!
They round the net in a moment of victory, arms hoisted in the air, ballet with no ballerinas, as sweet as any win could be. All beneath a cold black winter’s night, surrounded by middle class neighbourhood of warm red brick houses, bright windows, smoke rising from their chimneys — the only sound — the slap of the puck, the boom of the boards, and the keening as skates caress ice.