Children of the Rink

A week old Saturday paper sat on my living room chair. It had been a really busy week at work and I just didn’t have the chance to sit and read through it. I was about to just toss it into the recycling,  but the image of a young hockey player poised for greatness on the front cover made me stop for a second to see what the article was all about.

It was nice to see a photo of something that is a cherished part of Canada’s heritage on the front cover, rather than some image of man-made destruction overseas. Little did I know that this article was about to reach deep for my heartstrings, and leave me with a sore throat from trying to swallow the lump the columnist was preparing to put there.

The story was of a local boy that had caught the attention of his fellow teammates and the arena community but for me, it was the memories that came flooding back as I read the tale the young child’s passion for the game inspired. That building had provided (and surely continues to provide), the stories of many a youngster whose childhood playground was once that little arena on Folkstone Avenue in Hamilton, Ontario Canada.

The support and dedication towards not only minor hockey, but amongst the families of the Lawfield community that the author had so perfectly described in that touching article that had all of Hamilton reaching for the Kleenex box, came as no surprise. Eleven years of my life was spent amongst the four walls that surrounded that little piece of frozen water. That building in its own way, taught me so much about life.

Anyone who has ever skated her ice surface, peered over her boards at their friends skating by, watched on from the stands cheering on their child, stood in front of seventeen kids listening eagerly to their pre-game pep talk, or anyone who has lined up in the community room for their free pop and hotdog on Super Saturday, knows just how special the Lawfield Community is and how well they support and influence, minor hockey in Hamilton.

How fitting it was that that article had come only a couple weeks after I suddenly found myself sitting in those very stands; reflecting on the days where all I knew was hockey and the families and friends that were so much a part of my youth.

It’s easy as we hurry through this life, to lose sight of what’s truly important. We strive to make more money to purchase more material things, but thankfully there exists moments such as this, where we are given the gift and opportunity to stop and reflect on the roads that led us to where we are today.

I had felt the need to step off that road myself a couple of weeks prior to reading that article; awoken one spring night with this sudden urge to visit my past and search my soul. To look back at the life lessons I learned within the walls of a little community arena called Lawfield.

It had probably been 10 years at that time, since I stepped foot in the east mountain arena. I had passed by it many times with the family dog, but it had been quite awhile since I smelt that combined aroma of arena hot dogs, Zamboni exhaust, and hockey sweat. As I sat down in my seat in the stands, as I took a deep breath of that swamp water air, the memories of being a kid at Lawfield arena came flooding back.

I was 6 years old the first time I hit the ice (literally) and to lie, I was excited about it. I was fairly reserved at that age, so my parents thought they would give me a little nudge (or in this case drag me kicking and screaming), and enroll me in recreational hockey.

I remember not wanting to step a skate on that brightly lit ice. The fluorescent lighting almost blinding as I squinted out at the fate that awaited me through sleep-filled eyes.  The horror in my expression as I peered onto the cold, slippery surface that was soon to reach up and untie my skate laces; laughing as I lay vertical across its unforgiving, frozen shell.

I argued as I took hold of a folding metal chair in front of me. How dumb was this anyway? If I fell, I was just going to rack my chin off the back of the cold metal, bite my tongue, and then hit my head off the ice, waking up 5 minutes later with tweety birds flying around me blabbering something about “I talk I talk a pretty fast”.

That’s what you would get from it anyway if you heard me talk. Shy, I talked too fast, and when I tried to slow down I would stutter. Now, I was pushing around a chair and trying to walk on water. Maybe the artist in me settled in a little earlier than I thought. Especially when I started to enjoy seeing how far I could walk on water before my legs split outward, and my chin was the only thing keeping the rest of my body from hitting the ice.

I waddled down the rink; my knees looking like coconuts attached to the centre of two twigs forming an X. Hands tightly gripping the chair back. Arms at 90 degrees, butt positioned for potty training. With beady eyes keeping watch to make sure nobody untied my skate laces, I marched down the ice towards the boards whose outstretched arms awaited a new helmut signature from another poor kid ill-equipped with brakes.

Whack!, and each time – although probably 10 minutes apart, I continued to kiss the boards that were now winking their eyes at me; tripping over each line that I was sure at least stuck out of the ice a little bit.

Slowly, my ‘I gotta go bathroom’ routine turned into a staggering confidence and from there, well, something started that would drive my passions for the rest of my life. I began to learn the fundamentals of the game that would write so many of my most cherished childhood memories into the depths of my heart. I was discovering the game of hockey.

As I re-visited my youth, I both laughed and smiled looking on as the game I loved, tripped into the hearts of a new generation of over-padded tykes.

If learning how to skate wasn’t hard enough, someone thought it funny to put a stick in the hands of the still unsure skater, and load them full of equipment. Those poor little kids down there looked like Bugs Bunny ready for basic training. I remember all too well how awkward it was to move, never mind trying to get up when you fell, with a shoulder pad stuck in your face-mask and your elbow pads preventing you from bending your arms.

Mastering the art of skating with a stick in your hand was kind of like outfitting a toddler fresh off their first steps, in stilettos. It looked equally as comical too except for the poor kid skewered by the wobbly wayfarer in her path; too busy looking into the stands for his parents.

Keeping two hands on their sticks was a different story altogether. I remember in my playing days, being made to do push-ups when we took one hand off the lumber. I was almost positive I saw some poor kid out there that weekend, wondering if he should pick up the stick he just dropped because he wasn’t holding on with two hands, or drop and do 20. Either way, I smiled at the image of those six and seven year olds trying their darndest to reach down – while keeping their balance, to pick up their sticks with the oversized mitts they were made to wear.

The two-hands theory did seem to sink into the tightly fitting helmets of some of those tykes, but perhaps a little too deep for a few. At various times throughout those early Saturday morning hours, those kids started to resemble the little plastic red and blue players in those bubble hockey games. The puck sitting 3 feet in front of them, two hands on their stick, arms outstretched, no bend in their elbows, swinging back and forth like they were golfing. Swing … and a miss. Back and forth. Back and forth. Missing the puck each time until finally ‘FOUR!’, and with no set destination to the horror of their goalie, who was not expecting a pass in front of the net from his own player.

It was funny watching those kids after all these years. Envisioning my younger, inquisitive self sitting on those same players benches; their heads barely at eye level to the top of the boards. So many little details change every hockey season that differentiate one year from the next, including small things like the view from the bench. Going from having to stand on your tippy toes to make sure your teammate is okay who just went feet first into the boards after tripping over his jersey, peering over the bench from a sitting down position at your friend who just fell off the boards trying to master the art of jumping over them instead of using the handy little doors.

I saw kids at many different stages of their hockey development that weekend. Some were positioned as if they were still holding on to that chair, some still hadn’t been given the secret decoder password telling them how to stop (and to drink their Ovaltine), and some just couldn’t figure out why the buzzer kept going off every two minutes; and always when they were on a breakaway?

You can’t help but feel for the over-anxious skater who gets so excited when he realizes the only thing between the goalie and himself, was the puck he just over-skated. Of course, there is also the girl – confident and quick not a kid can catch her, who races down the ice already contemplating whether she is going to deke left or fake right, only to find the goalie already sprawled out on the ice knowing full well, Tykes can’t raise the puck yet.

There was the poor kid all the way at the other end of the arena trying to get back for a face-off – possibly a good time for a commercial break. The one who can’t figure out why everyone is yelling at him, and why all of his teammates are lined up across the blue line? Why is the referee holding up his arm anyway? It must be getting tired?

Of course for the ones who are still mastering skating, there is always that shock of the puck finding its way onto their stick and getting so excited that they turn, shoot, and then look up in horror at the goalie with the matching sweater looking back at them. The poor little girl whose turn it was to play net that week, standing there dumbfounded wondering why both teams were shooting at her?

Tyke hockey is like bumper kids accept those poor unsuspecting souls aren’t equipped with seat belts. Those who have played the game know that it doesn’t really hurt at that age when some uncoordinated skater loses their balance and whacks you over the head with their stick, or when you engage in a head-on collision with two other kids while racing for the puck.

Those kids are so full of equipment at that age they look like the robot off of Lost in Space waddling down the ice at ludicrous speed, zoned in on that little black chunk of rubber. Except, those kids are so tuned into that bouncing cylindrical object that none of them hear ‘Danger, Will Robinson!’, as the virtual sound of bowling pins echoes throughout the crowd. The only thing that truly gets hurt at that young age, is your pride as you all lie on the ice shaking your heads and wondering where the train came from. Well, maybe that and landing on your tailbone because that pad always seemed to slide out of the way just in time for contact.

Watching those Tykes players trying to stop was probably the best entertainment value of the entire weekend. I laughed as I watched the creative ways those little kids made it to their benches. Some of them could already make snow fly – although some of them also tripped over it. Some used the boards to stop – some with their hands and some used their head, and a few just fell down and slid past the bench. ‘Safe!’, I saw one coach signal as one of his players travelled on his buttocks past the players bench; inspiring a chuckle from the crowd and a big smile from the little guy’s coach.

Pulling the goalie at that level of play is hysterical too because really, all they are doing is adding more chaos and confusion with one more skater to get lost in the excitement of being down by one goal with a minute left to play. The team with the extra skater trying desperately to keep the puck out of their own end, and players of the team that is up by a goal eagerly awaiting their opportunity at a shot at the empty net.

As is always the case when you are having the time of your life, the game slowly comes to an end. I remember the excitement of 1 minute left, yet the sadness as the Zamboni doors opened, of it being the final seconds of play for another week. I can almost still feel the eagerness for the next 6 days to fly by so I could play hockey again, and already dreaming as the final buzzer sounded, of the following week’s game. Envisioning waking up at 6am, stopping by Tim Horton’s with my dad for a chocolate milk and a maple dipped donut, and getting together with all of my friends to lace up the skates and play the good old hockey game.

I heard many moms and dads that morning cheering on their little hockey stars every time they stepped onto the ice. The parent-child wave exchanges as their children look up into the crowd at every opportunity (and in-opportunity), grinning wide. Those kids were out there making their parents proud.

It seemed like just yesterday, that I was on the other side of that ice; on those same benches, looking up into those same supportive stands.

Beyond the meshing that now surrounds the playing surface and through those little wondering masks, I could see that same look in their eyes that I know I once felt; that same smile, as their parents looked over in overzealous support.

Looking back at my childhood two memories are very clear. One is playing the game of hockey itself and the second, is a collection of moments shared with the guys and families that were the best part of this winter youth tradition. It’s funny how when I look back at my childhood, it always seems to be winter?

It’s hard to believe that it has been over fourty years since the most vivid memories of my childhood started to storyboard the pages of my heart that hold the visions that inspired my youth.

Many kids came in and out of our lives from the day we start playing hockey to the day that one by one, we play the last games of our minor hockey careers. Strong bonds are created however, between the children who will share many of the same memories from their hockey playing youth.

Playing hockey as a child was more than Monday practices and Saturday morning games. It was about the lessons learned, how to get along with others and most of all, how to work as a team.

Hockey brought seventeen guys together and their families. Our parents became friends. Our sisters and brothers hung out together. Even the coaches, convenors, and referee’s – many of whom were sometimes our own fathers, were a big part of each hockey season. In so many ways, it was the friendships that developed between our parents that truly brought us all together.

It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that made playing hockey such an important part of my childhood. I would have to say that it was a combination of the love, support, and dedication our coaches, parents, and the kids I played with, put into those eleven years.

As children we practiced once or twice a week together, and played one or two games. We played street hockey, hand hockey in each others basements, and at night, dreamed of what hockey star we would be when we batted tennis balls with our hockey sticks on the playgrounds with our friends the next day.

There were sleep over’s and dinners at friends. There were weekend tournaments – two or three games a day, and hall hockey throughout the floors of the hotels. Dinners out together after the games, and the bus rides to and from those tournaments. Not only did seventeen kids and their siblings bond on those weekends, but their parents started new and often lasting friendships that gave them almost as many fond memories of those hockey days as the children who played in them.

Playing at Lawfield Arena, I don’t recall a lot of defeat. It seemed that most of the teams I played on not only contained some of my best friends, but a group of guys that worked well together. We knew success because we grasped what working as a team was all about. Even those of us who didn’t get along outside of the arena (which wasn’t many), knew how to get along for the sake of the jersey’s we shared in common.

I recall playing in many championship games. Coming home from countless tournaments having been crowned victors, and I remember very well the feeling of seventeen kids diving all over one another; airborne sticks, helmets, and gloves. I can feel the tears of joy running down my face, and I can almost see the back of our captains jersey as our team skated behind him holding the coveted trophy high. I can taste the free hotdog and pop that we had in the community room on Super Saturdays after the game. I can still feel the week-long anticipation leading up to big games, and the joy of spending the summers to follow as a champion.

Our coaches weren’t just someone who told us what line to play on or to keep two hands on our stick. They were some of the best teachers I ever had as a child. There was such a remarkable bond between us kids and our coaches. We had the greatest respect for them and the way they treated us all equally and fairly.

The parents weren’t just people to fill the stands either. They were friends to our mom’s and dad’s, and our ride to the game when our folks couldn’t make it. Sometimes they were our coach, our ref, our convenor, or even our managers.

Not only did we play with some of the most talented hockey players in the city, but we had the best parents too. Most of us always had our mom, dad, our grandparents, or all of them at our games. It was their support that helped maintain our interest in hockey, and it also created that bond between hockey, kids, parents, and coaches. There was a respect amongst that group that created lasting memories for all of us to look back at every once in awhile and smile, thinking of the good ol’ hockey days.

As I watched my cousins boy play in his first Super Saturday that March, I thought about how those kids out on that ice whose passion for the game was possibly at its peak, will one day look back on these moments, and how they will no doubt be some of the fondest memories they will have when they remember their childhood. They will recall the coaches, families, and friends who were all a part of these days of their youth, and they will smile. One day, they will even tell their own stories of the time they played hockey in that little arena on Folkstone Avenue in Hamilton, Ontario Canada.

Those days I spent re-capturing the memories of my youth, made me once again realize how important minor hockey is in the development of our children. How it teaches them so many important lessons – including in the case of all the kids that had the honor that day of playing in a Super Saturday game, staying focused on your dreams. 

Hockey may be an expensive sport, but for me the investment of eleven years also came with a souvenir of a lifetime membership of memories.

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