No five for Friday today. Instead another holiday flashback.
With temperatures in southern Ontario hitting double digits for most of the last week, it doesn’t feel like Christmas is barely two weeks away. It makes it more palatable to drive a car in flimsy Under Armour shorts at 6am, without benefit of heated seats, and it sadly makes it impossible to skate on a pond on natural ice.
Which brings me to Sentimental Christmas Memory #2. Pond hockey.
Climate change deniers can deny all they want. The winters are shorter and warmer now. If you want to argue about something, argue about why that has happened. But the fact that it’s going on around us is irrefutable.
I remember as a kid practically exploding at the prospect of Christmas vacation. Christmas was, for sure, a very big deal in our home and my parents deserve a lot of respect and credit for making it that way for us. We didn’t have a lot of money but I never went without anything I needed. A lot of things I didn’t have, well, I didn’t need. Some of the traditions around my Christmas at home survive to this day with our family and I suspect some of them will move along with my sons when the time comes.
But a big, big part of the holiday season was pond hockey. What you are looking at below is a photo of Oakville’s Sean McLaren. I coached Sean when he was a Timbit in hockey and soccer. He now plays junior hockey in La Ronge, Sk, which is so far north that Santa buys his reindeer feed there.
But if there was ever a more Canadian picture than this one, of Sean cutting across a mirror finish on Lac La Ronge under an aching blue sky … I can’t imagine what it is. And I’m proud that I know what that feels like.
At Christmastime, the boys in my village – and it was always just the boys and it was actually a village, not a subdivision – would start showing up at the pond across the tracks and through the woods about a full 9-iron from my house any time after 930a or so. By 1030a or 11a we had more than enough for a full game.
The nets were usually boots on the ice marking the posts. Gloves and sticks. No shin pads or helmets or mouth guards. The participants would range in age from eight or nine up to 15 or 16 or 18. The big kids looked out for the little ones (generally) and the little ones got stuck playing goalie a lot (generally) and it was pure, unblemished Canadian fun.
Everyone lived within a 10 or 15 minute walk of the pond. Guys would cycle in and out at lunch time and by 1p we’d be back to full quorum. We’d play until the first fingers of darkness clawed at the horizon. By the time the sky was bleeding with the red of sunset, only a few hard core types remained.
For better or worse, I was hard core. I skated so much on ponds that my father insisted I have a second, cheaper pair of skates that I used just for the purpose, lest I ruin my good skates and ding up the blades doing things like chasing wayward pucks up on the shore among the rocks and stumps.
Eventually, when my dad would come home from work or when someone noticed I wasn’t at the dinner table again, he would stand on the verandah of our house and blow a whistle, which meant it was way past dark and I had to come home. My family had long had their dinner and I would trudge home. My fingers were quite often red and raw from cold but it didn’t matter even a little. I’d devour a shake-and-bake pork chop or piece of chicken that was left warming in the oven a little too long because I was a little too late.
I never complained.
After Christmas and into January the ice on the big lake would thicken and we would be allowed to skate over there – a small causeway separated the pond from the lake. And on the lake, we would learn to fly.
The wind typically blew from the north and without our sticks we would hunch over and skate and skate and skate impossibly far up that lake directly into the wind, and then we would turn and feel the wind on our backs. It would only take five or six strides and the wind would take over.
Arms outstretched we would glide, laughing manically as the grey ice rushed faster and faster under us at improbable speed and the blue sky swept overhead. You’ve never known such a moment of freedom.
That lake barely freezes anymore and when it does, skaters are a rare commodity. The pond is largely overgrown with bulrushes and plant life; it is a wetland which is good for birds and muskrats but bad for hockey players. Not that parents today would ever, in a million years, send eight and nine year old boys out to skate on a pond or lake supervised only by local teens. It just wouldn’t happen.
I always feel bad that those boys — my boys — never knew such freedom, or the sensation of flight unimpeded by meddling albeit well-intentioned adults, like me.
Christmas was pond hockey. Endless hours under a Canadian sky where for a few hours we were bigger and faster and all can’t-miss prospects. We were Leafs or Canadiens; there was nothing in between.
The frozen lakes and pond of my youth were where we learned to fly. We never imagined that we’d ever have to land.