January 27, 2011

Childhood memories spur rise of outdoor hockey

by Brion O'Connor

The iconic image of the game: Low clouds hovering over a windswept, tree-lined lake, winter's dim light turning colors into shades of gray. (photo: Michael Moore/The Keene Sentinel)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

It is the iconic image of the game. Low clouds hovering over a windswept, tree-lined lake, winter’s dim light turning colors into shades of gray. It is, I imagine, what the immortal Hobey Baker saw in the late afternoons on the Lower School Pond at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., in the early 1900s. It is what I remember of my own youth, growing up in the 1960s in northern New Jersey, or skating on Dorr’s Pond near my grandparents’ home in Manchester, N.H.

Obviously, stepping back more than three decades years can tint memories, but fortunately for me, all the recollections are good. Growing up outside New York City, necessity dictated that if we were going to play hockey, we’d be playing mostly on the streets. But in wintertime, I’d salivate over the prospects of getting on the ice. I remember peering out our kitchen window at night, eyeing the thermometer, praying the mercury would dip below the magical 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

There were a couple of ponds scattered around town, and I recall playing shinny games without any fancy gear or jerseys. Crystal Lake, down off Grand Avenue, even had a big bonfire. Nothing felt, or smelled, better than inching up to the flames, letting that natural furnace drive the cold from my bones.

But the pinnacle of pond hockey perfection was going to Dorr’s Pond. This was one of the great rewards for the long drive north to visit Grandma and Grandpa. The pond, beside Livingston Park, was just a short walk from our grandparents’ house. My siblings and I would bundle up, grab our skates and sticks and a few coins for a hot chocolate, and shuffle down to the pond.

There, the city had a warming hut dividing the pond and an actual rink (with boards and lights). The rink was the domain of the older kids and young men, but we were able to sneak on every now and then, typically playing a smaller, cross-ice game. I don’t think anything made Grandpa, a native of Quebec, happier than seeing his small army of grandchildren mucking around on the ice.

Later, after our family moved to New Hampshire, my brothers and I would still frequent Dorr’s Pond, or other frozen bodies. One day in particular stands out, when my brother Chris and I and two friends found some black ice up by Lake Massabesic that I swear was smoother than glass. If we missed a pass, the puck would slide forever. And, naturally, we’d debate about who was responsible for skating after it, the passer or the passee. We’d argue, and laugh.

I’m sure we had little appreciation for just how magical, and how fleeting, those days were.

Clearly, I’m not alone in my affection for pond hockey. Talk to any enthusiast, and eventually they’ll hit on the essential attraction of the outdoor game.

“In a rink, it’s usually a structured environment,” says 48-year-old Don Garrison, a Connecticut native now living in Hampton, N.H. “You’re told what to do when you’re out there, and you do it. Or you’re public skating. Out there on the pond, you can skate morning to night, and you can do whatever you want.”

Garrison has tapped into that ideal, as co-owner of Home Rinks (see sidebar). But the real impetus for Home Rinks, Garrison says, was his own childhood, skating on ponds in Connecticut, and wanting his children to have the same experience.

It’s understandable. The outdoor game is spontaneous, unpredictable. It’s raw, and it’s fun. There’s no pressure. It’s a game, not a “competition,” or a rigid practice full of expectations. It is just “play,” pure and simple. It’s shinny.

Think about it. Have you ever heard anyone call the indoor game “shinny” hockey? That’s because time playing hockey indoors is almost always organized, with practice plans or games with blue lines and red lines and refs and whistles and rules.

“More and more people are coming back to enjoying being outside,” says Bill Matthews, the rector at St. Paul’s School and the school’s hockey historian. “There’s just the pure pleasure of being out there on a beautiful day, skating in a game, where you can just lace them up and skate forever. It’s not about skating your one-minute shift and coming off and sitting for five minutes.

“The outdoor game is sort of free-flowing, creative,” he says. “You don’t worry about systems.”

Matthews has the ideal perspective about the outdoor game, given that his office at St. Paul’s looks out over the Lower School Pond. It was here, many historians agree, that hockey was first played in the United States, in 1883. St. Paul’s built its first artificial rink in the 1930s, but Matthews (Class of ‘61) and other students continued playing on the Lower School Pond whenever the “black ice” set in. Matthews even recalls the school celebrating “black ice holidays,” when classes would be canceled in favor of a good sheet of ice.

Despite the realities of “global warming” and the fact that ponds freeze later and thaw earlier, there are still similar pockets found throughout New England.

“I like being able to walk down the street with my skates and stick over my shoulder for a game of hockey, like some overgrown kid,” says 60-year-old Michael Dee of New Jersey, who often finds a pick-up skate with friends near his family home in Stockbridge, Mass.

“I even like walking into the woods to retrieve an errant puck,” he says. “I like investing in the skate by walking down to the pond the morning before a game to help clean the ice and fill in the gouges and cracks that mark yesterday’s heroics.

“Of course, there is nothing better than playing outside on a crisp New England afternoon and skating until the sun is too low in the sky to follow the puck.”

Along the coast of Maine, the phones start ringing with local skaters checking on ice conditions once the temps dip below freezing.

“We have a core of male participants, ranging from 40 to 70,” says Ken Fellows of Kittery Point, one of the group’s elder statesmen. “However, there is an unwritten rule, and long-standing tradition, that whoever shows up is invited to play.”

Early season games are usually at Fort McClary Park alongside the Atlantic, on a “very shallow pond, with a lot of trees around it, so it freezes quick and the sun never gets in there,” Fellows says. “Then we migrate to a pond that’s back in the woods, and much bigger, but that takes longer to freeze.”

“On a day, when the temperature is 25-30, the ice is hard and smooth, the sun is brilliant and the sky cerulean blue, and I’m having the most fun I could possibly have with some of my best friends, there is no other place on earth I would want to be,” he says. “It’s absolute heaven.”

It was that sense of nirvana that the 2003 Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers captured so beautifully. The National Hockey League, never shy to leverage a marketing opportunity, borrowed the concept and created the annual New Year’s “Winter Classic.” Those events drew attention to the World Pond Hockey Championships in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick — now in its ninth year — and other similar tournaments stateside, such as the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minnesota.

Scott Crowder (Nashua, N.H.), a former UMass-Amherst player and son of former UMass-Lowell and Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder, took notice.

“I saw guys were flying all across the country to play in these things, and thought, ‘Why not have a big pond hockey tournament in our backyard,’” said the 25-year-old Crowder.

The New England Pond Hockey Festival in Rangeley, Maine, is the granddaddy of New England tournaments, celebrating its fifth year in February. But the trend really hit critical mass last year, with the Boston Bruins hosting the Philadelphia Flyers in the Winter Classic at Fenway Park, and Crowder launching the inaugural New England Pond Hockey Classic in Meredith, N.H., on the frozen waters of Lake Winnipesaukee. Easy access to the Boston and New York markets was a major draw, but even Crowder was stunned by the response.

“I never thought we’d have 77 teams and 40 on the wait list in the first year,” he says, adding that this year’s tournament is already sold out, with 150 teams. “But my phone buzzes every day with people trying to put a team into the tournament. We have a huge wait list.”

The success of the Meredith tourney encouraged Crowder to create a similar event in Burlington, Vt., called the Lake Champlain Pond Hockey Classic. Crowder also was hired to put on the inaugural Monarchs Pond Hockey Classic, a single-day event sponsored by the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs at my old stomping grounds, Dorr’s Pond. The growth in pond hockey tournaments throughout New England, and next door in New York, is testament to the outdoor game’s revived popularity, and to the pull of nostalgia.

“It’s just fun,” Crowder says. “Most of the guys come up with just one thing in their head: win, win, win. But, at the end of the day, it’s about having a couple of beers, smiling and having a good time with your buddies.”

A couple of post-skate beverages led to the birth of another new event, the 1883 Black Ice Pond Hockey Championships at White Park in Concord, N.H., says co-founder Chris Brown, president of New Hampshire Distributors. The tournament is not only a celebration of the city’s rich hockey history, but also is designed to help restore skating opportunities through the capital.

“When I was growing up in Concord, there used to be areas flooded in most of the parks,” says the 40-year-old Brown, who played at Concord High. “Then, over the years, those just slowly went away, whether it was lack of interest, or the city not having the funds to do it. It’s our mission to revitalize that (hockey culture) over the years.”

According to David Gill, the city’s recreation director, the tournament, through its partnerships with local businesses, already has raised enough money to fund a skating area at Rollins Park at the south end of the city. “We haven’t had skating there in two decades,” he says.

“I was surprised about how hard-core the hockey players are about getting back to their roots of playing on ponds,” says Gill, who admits he wasn’t a hockey player growing up. “I follow hockey. Everything’s in climate-controlled indoor facilities, everybody’s comfortable.

“But it started on the ponds in New England, and it’s kind of cool to see that that’s where people really want to play. And the scary thing is, they’re willing to pay to play.”

One intriguing aspect of the tournament phenomenon is that it spotlights a generational divide in outdoor enthusiasts. Most aren’t young.

Crowder saw it firsthand growing up in southern New Hampshire.

“I was always grabbing four, five guys and trying to find a pond that had some ice for us,” he says. “I absolutely loved the sport, and that’s as raw as the sport can get.”

“But my buddies would say, ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t we skating inside? Let’s get five or six more guys, and let’s buy an hour at the rink or something,’” he says. “And I’d say, ‘Guys, we’re playing outside.’”

Crowder and Brown have noticed it with their tournaments, as the majority of players tend to fall into the 35-plus and older categories. Though strictly anecdotal, the evidence suggests that between the unpredictable nature of Old Man Winter and the availability of indoor ice, fewer kids are heading to the ponds.

“There’s definitely that gap, where more and more kids don’t skate outside,” Crowder says. “I think one of the coolest things is seeing the adults who did do that, and then went inside where they played for 20-25 years, and now have the opportunity to come back outside.”

Which, according to Brown, gives some of the old-timers an advantage come tourney time. “People who are 40, 45 and older grew up playing hockey outside,” he says. “People who are 18 to 30 years old, they don’t know what playing hockey outside is. They look at pictures, and say, ‘That looks neat, I’d like to try that.’

“But they’re the first ones freezing their butts off, saying ‘This isn’t any fun.’ And everyone in the 35-plus and 50-plus divisions just deals with it. That’s how it was. You just dressed for it, and that’s it.”

Even Boston coaching legends Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) of Boston University and Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) of Boston College, who met last year in the Hockey East “Frozen Fenway” game, will get into the pond hockey act. Parker’s been known to drop in unannounced during shinny games near his Gloucester home, while York occasionally brings his Eagles to the outdoor rink at Lars Anderson Park in Brookline.

“We always try to do that, if the weather cooperates,” York says. “We’ve done it nine of the 15 years I’ve been here, at some point during the Christmas vacation, just to bring back the joy of playing hockey.”

“I think we get that when we go to these outdoor rinks. It brings back a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to your young guys who are so accustomed to big venues and big rinks. But all of a sudden, you’re outside, playing where the game originated.”

That’s exactly what the pond hockey tournaments offer participants, and why they’re proving to be such a success.

“When you have a tournament like this, it can have a competitive flair to it, but it’s really going back to the roots of your childhood and the roots of the game,” Brown says. “It’s going to be self-police by the players, and it’s about camaraderie among the players. When you had a street hockey game in front of your house or you went out to the local pond, you didn’t have a referee there. You figured it out.”

Today, pond hockey stills calls to me, though not as often, due to the scarcity of good ice. And I’m a bit more leery of its siren’s song.

Those pressure cracks in the ice were once just a minor inconvenience because they interrupted the smooth path of the puck, making it jump unpredictably. Now, those fractures look like a bad injury waiting to happen. I can just envision my blades getting caught, and one of my knees coming apart like overcooked spaghetti.

So I err on the side of caution, slipping on some elbow and knee pads, “just in case.” Because when my daughters say they want to skate, I can’t say, “No.”

Maybe I’ll even try to coax my 50-something brothers to join me for the upcoming Monarchs Pond Hockey Classic on Dorr’s Pond. For old time’s sake.

Brion O’Connor can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com

SEE ALSO: Backyard rinks are a way of life

Upcoming pond hockey tournaments

Can/Am Pond Hockey Championships
Jan. 27-30, Mirror Lake, Lake Placid, N.Y.

Black Ice Pond Hockey Championship
Jan. 28-30, Concord, N.H.

Vermont Pond Hockey Championships
Jan. 29-30, Lake Morey Resort, Fairlee, Vt.

New England Pond Hockey Classic
Feb. 4-6, Meredith, N.H.

New England Pond Hockey Festival
Feb. 4-6, Rangeley, Maine

Monarchs Pond Hockey Classic
Feb. 12, Manchester, N.H.

Lake Champlain Pond Hockey Classic
Feb. 18-20, Burlington, Vt.