where gretzkys forge their gifts

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A version of this post appeared on page 129 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

We know where hockey really lives: out the kitchen door, in the January cold, on the ice of our backyards, poured out by parents from a hose to freeze overnight. That’s where our Gretzkys forge their gifts, not to mention those of us whose only claim on the game is simple frigid passion. So the mythology says, at least, and it’s a beloved one. Now, in a warming world, outdoor rinks are increasingly at risk. A dire 2015 study projects that by 2090, the “skateability” of plein air rinks in Toronto and Montreal will have declined by 34 per cent. Maybe there are more pressing planetary threats, but this is one that skates to our very core. Of all the existential challenges facing hockey, from concussion crises to declining youth enrolment, this one seems a specially poignant threat: if the very ice won’t last, how can the game?

(Image: © Stephen Smith)

the day we invented pond hockey

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Denis Smith grew up in Alberta, and that’s where he first played hockey, as told here. Later he pursued pucks in Quebec and Ontario, and then (as a member of the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club) in England and Italy and Germany and Switzerland. Otherwise, he’s a professor emeritus of political science and former dean of social science at the University of Western Ontario. His books include the award-winning Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker and The Prisoners of Cabrera, as well as the novel General Miranda’s Wars: Turmoil and Revolt in Spanish America, 1750-1816. He lives in Ottawa.

by Denis Smith

Once upon a time (almost a century ago in Alberta), there was a cold, cold autumn when the snow never fell. Winter came and there was still no snow. Every morning the sun came up in the east in a cloudless sky (though it didn’t come up until 11 o’clock in the morning, because this was a place in the far, far north) and shone right across the prairies, a thousand miles from east to west and 600 miles from south to north.

The sun shone through the cold, cold air, past all the clouds of steam that were made by all the people breathing out into the cold, cold air. When you looked down from above, you could see little puffs of white, steamy breath shining in the bright sunlight all the way from Winnipeg to Fort Whoopup on the Belly and beyond.

Down there on the ground, those frozen breaths were made by boys and girls as they walked home from school for lunch, thinking of peanut-butter-and-jam sandwiches. (They made the same frozen clouds of steam when they went to school in the morning, but the sky was still dark and no one could see them.)

Sometimes as they dawdled, the jokey ones would blow steam rings, and steam spirals, and steam skyscrapers, and those would drift high up into the cloudless sky. And since there were no real clouds, those strange shapes became the clouds that could be seen drifting slowly across the prairies: giant doughnut shapes, and curlicues, and spires. The birds flew in and out among them chasing one another from dawn to dusk (that is, from 11 until three, when the sun went down in the far, far north where we lived). And slowly, in the darkness, the shapes all faded away, leaving a clean blue sky to greet the sun when it came up the next morning.

Anyway, the best times came on the weekends in this cold, cold winter on the prairies when there was no snow. We bundled ourselves into our itchy long underwear and our knee breeches and our woolen sweaters, rushed through our breakfasts, and piled into the family automobiles, Fords, Nashes and Chevrolets, two-doors and four-doors and coupes with rumbleseats, and the dogs piled in on top of us, and we all set out for The Lake. The Lake is called Wabamun, or spelled backwards, Numabaw. (Most people didn’t spell it backwards because it was harder to say than Wabamun, and almost as hard to say as “certify.” That’s “yfitrec” and very hard to pronounce.)

Anyway. Here we were in our cars, driving west with the sun as it followed low behind us, on an early Saturday morning, to Lake Wabamun. When we got there what a sight we saw before us! From Kapasiwin in the east to Seba Beach in the west, there was solid ice for 14 miles, all smooth and shiny and bluish-white in the sunlight, without a single bulge or crack or pile of snow because there was no snow anywhere that winter.

At the top of the hill above the lake we scrambled out of the cars with our dogs and our scarves and our skates and our mitts and our toques, and tumbled down the footpath in a great rush to get to the shore. The dogs followed us, ran in and out among us, and sometimes tripped us up because they, too, were excited about what they saw (even though they saw the lake in black and white while we saw it in colour).

We had our hockey sticks too (didn’t I say that?), which the best-trained dogs among us carried down to the lake in their teeth. Continue reading

everything you need in the woods

clapper

Dit Clapper, hero of hundreds of hockey games, oldest player in point of service and active up to last year as player-coach of the Bruins, is like many other athletes, an avid outdoorsman. He has shot ducks, geese, prairie chickens, pheasants, bear, deer, moose, and caribou. Wing-shooting is his favourite just as it is with many sports stars we know.

That’s Jim Hurley writing in Sport magazine in January of 1948 about the off-ice activities of the long-time Hall-of-Fame Boston winger and defenceman who’s seen above, on the right, with a duck-shooting friend, probably in the 1930s.

Sport was good enough to publish Clapper’s own “Tips To Outdoorsmen.” It’s worth reproducing them here, in the public interest:

• Err on the large side when choosing your shot. Pick a shot that will do the job and not leave cripples. I like 4’s for ducks, and have used 2’s and 0’s for geese.

• My favourite barrel length is 32 inches; it gets the stuff out there.

•  Try for a neck shot by all means on deer. It’s even more deadly than a heart shot. If you fire late, you’re apt to make a hit in the vital, high-back area.

• Have everything you need in the woods. The biggest single necessity is means of making a fire.

• A lost man can get along without food and water for days, but cold will kill him if he can’t keep himself warm overnight. Dry matches, therefore, are of the utmost importance at all times in the woods.

• Be methodical and certain; imprudence never pays. I found out, and now I know.

(Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

ponderable

We put on our skates in the house and clumped out and into the snow and slid a bit but mostly we stayed steady, moving forward, over the bridge with Kohos in hand and the pucks and shovels, and the axe, blazing our own trail as we struggled up the hill, just like Samuel Hearne, if he’d done his bushwhacking on Bauers.

You need at least three pucks if you’re playing on the pond, allowing for slapshots that the snow swallows and strays stolen by the dog. The Kohos and the shovels — well, obviously. If you don’t have an augur, an axe will do, and did, as we stood on the dock and chopped, gingerly — because you can’t be too careful swinging an axe while on you’re on skates — but also manfully, because is there any other way to swing an axe in the forest?

The pond doesn’t have a name. It’s fine without one. This is up north of Toronto, where this year the winter was for a long time slow to take. The pond used to be a farm field and before that I guess probably forest. Most of the trees closest by the pond are new-growth, pine-trees in straight rows, like puzzled fans who don’t know the game they’re watching well enough to comment. People used to skate here, years ago, but the ice has been lying fallow for — I don’t even know. Decades, maybe?

Two years ago I got a rink cleared at Christmas and kept it going through to March — easy. But last year I had slush problems followed by thaw trouble leading to deer traipsing around while the ice was soft and I wasn’t around and then what happened was the hoofprints froze like one of those learn-your-dance-steps diagrams, except three-dimensional and — I gave up. The tiny goal-nets I had out there stayed sunken and stuck until spring, when I lured them in on ropes.    Continue reading