we have all played the game. We have played it on a pond, a backyard rink, a parking lot, a city street, a local arena. We have played it indoors, on a kitchen floor or in a basement rec room, or even on a table-top hockey game. Maybe we have played it mainly in our heads. But at some point in our lives, we have lived for the hours we have spent on real ice or its facsimile. Maybe all that separates those who go on to play professional hockey and those for whom hockey is a much-loved but occasional distraction is the degree to which hockey obsessed us in our youth. (Natural talent, of course, is a factor, but in our dreams, at least, we all can imagine ourselves as hockey stars.)
The kids who have gone on to play in the NHL didn’t get there simply by going to their weekly league game or practice. They worked on it without even knowing they were working. There are basement walls still covered in black puck marks (as the foundation blocks and freezer are in Ottawa Senator Mike Fisher’s parents’ basement). There are dented garage and shed doors, new windows in place of shattered old ones, and countless forests of broken sticks to attest to their zeal. When the kids weren’t playing the game, they were watching it on Hockey Night in Canada
. And in Canada today, thousands of other kids are doing some of the same things. Not because they are made to do it, but because they can’t help themselves.
Former Boston Bruin Stan Jonathan grew up in Ohsweken, near Brantford, Ontario, in the 1950s and 1960s. A creek still runs by his family homestead for about two miles, and the kids made good use of it when they were growing up. Stan, the middle child, didn’t have skates or sticks or even pucks for much of the time when he was young. But that didn’t stop him or others from creating their own version of hockey. They would go out and play on the frozen creek in their boots. They cut hickory limbs from trees for sticks and brought along a tin can. Stan says, “We played under the full moon once a month, all night long, with Carnation cream cans so we could hear it in the dark and find it in the snow. We’d scrape the stream of snow, all the kids, and we’d be outside all the time. We used boots for nets and they’d be filled with ice by the time we were done. Some sticks were just old lacrosse sticks, others were from a tree. It was fun, a good time. It was like field hockey or road hockey but on the ice.” As soon as they got skates, which Stan did at the age of eleven, they’d join the others skating the length of the creek. “We’d skate for hours,” he says. “We’d skate to see if anyone else was around and then skate back.”
Former Petes captain and star of the junior national team, Brent Tully, started skating on Chemong Lake, about ten minutes from Peterborough, when he was four years old. His parents used to take him and his younger sister on weekend visits to see relatives and join other adults and kids to play on the outdoor ice. “We’d shoot the puck down the ice and it would go on forever. I still remember the snowbanks. We’d put people into them and get pushed into them. We’d go there whenever the weekends allowed it,” he says. They also made use of the frozen Trent Canal, a haven for both young and old skaters, where he got his first shiner after being hit in the eye by a stick.
When future NHL star Steve Chiasson was about four years old, the family moved from near Barrie to a rural area just outside Peterborough, his mother Betty’s hometown. Shortly after they got settled, his father, Joe, bought Steve a pair of bobskates – those skates with two parallel blades strapped to boots or shoes – to try out on a frozen swamp nearby.
Steve’s oldest sister, Sue, vividly remembers those days, as she related in an interview after his death in 1999. “I’d be getting off the school bus and he’d be standing at the bus stop waiting for me with his skates on. I’d have to take him right down to that swamp, and he’d stay for as long as he could. I remember the kids at the swamp would be teenagers, but he didn’t care, he just wanted to skate. I’d have to pick him up to carry him home, his little skate blades kicking into my legs.”
Fredericton-born Danny Grant started skating on a small pond behind his parents’ house in Barker’s Point, New Brunswick. His parents weren’t into sports, so Danny used his mother’s skates for a while. A few socks stuffed in the boots made them tight enough for his small feet. Danny knows that in the unstructured environment of pond hockey, you didn’t need coaches, you didn’t need a schedule, you just went outside and played. “That’s how we learned our skills. There were no systems, no dump-and-chase. We loved to rag the puck.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Hockey Town by Ed Arnold. Copyright © 2004 by Ed Arnold. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.