I like hockey mostly because the names make your mouth happy when you say them: Gaetan Duchesne, Rogie Vachon, Ilkka Sinisalo. My husband says that hockey is best appreciated as highlights on the news. Of a similar opinion was the man I met who recorded games to watch them later on fast-forward.
I like the superb skating, but when hockey is played politely not much happens. And despite the blood, the concussions and the teeth skittering across the ice, the sport lacks the excitement it had when I played. That could be fixed.
I learned to skate on Molitor's Pond in the greater Eola, Ill., area. My father had taken me, his oldest daughter—he had no sons—to Sears for skates. In a decision that probably molded my entire youth, we came away with sturdy brown and black hockey skates. I was four years old.
This was back in the '50s, before the term "parenting" or the concept of meaningful family dialogue had taken hold. "Stand up," my father would bark. "I can't," I'd whine from my position flat on the ice. "Don't whine! I didn't spend $7 on skates so you could sit there and whine. Try. Up. Now."
And so I learned to skate because every time I fell or sat down my father would glide past, snatch me up by the hood of my snowsuit and pilot me around. Thus suspended, my little feet would reflexively start to scurry over the ice. By the time I was 12 I had moved up to white Sears skates—girls' skates, with fake fur trim—and I was one of the deadliest hockey players on the field pond circuit.
The hockey I watch on TV is sterile, safe and not nearly so challenging as field pond hockey. First, there is the pond itself. A field pond exists only under special circumstances: It has to be real cold. A whole lot of snow has to fall on a gently rolling cornfield. Then the snow must melt, creating a shallow pool in a low spot on the frozen ground. The next cold snap freezes the tiny basin. Voila. Another field pond is born. Sometimes they last all winter. Mostly, they're unreliable.
Even at their best, field ponds offered challenges unimagined by today's rink-coddled hockey players. Great clods of frozen soil, defying the rules of nature, worked their way to the top of the ice. Cornstalks poked up at irregular intervals. Nothing in skating, save a concrete wall, will stop you faster than your toe pick ripping into a frozen cornstalk.
Field ponds offered an additional challenge. Because they were shallow and subject to subtle temperature changes, they were always developing "pockets"—that is, little holes for farm children to fall into. Good players could dodge these as well as the debris. But sometimes the skater's weight gave spontaneous birth to a pocket. Because it was a long way home, a tough skater would just make a mental note of the hole and keep skating. The only thing that would call off a game was when the water had surreptitiously seeped into the ground and softened the supporting soil. This left the ice perched above...nothing. The two teams would skate out, face off, then drop two feet as the whole pond collapsed.
Because we had no money, we also had no hockey equipment. We played with old croquet sets we found at yard sales—50 cents, tops. On the plus side, a croquet ball would leap easily over the stalk and clod problem. On the negative, it would smack our shins like a cannon-ball and, if left unchecked on a square hit, roll somewhere into the next county.
We went through a lot of mallets. Their skinny little shafts did not take to being smashed against the ice, our legs and each other. In fact, the game's greatest danger was not the pockets, clods, stalks or cannonballs. It was flying mallet heads. Say three of us skated toward the approaching ball, mallets flailing. We'd all three strike at once, usually missing the ball but smacking the mallets together. This would shoot a bolt of pain up the arm and cause the mallet heads to break off and rocket through the air with great speed and unpredictable direction, save that it would be square at a skater. Usually the victim was someone who had turned away to pull up a sock or shoo a dog off the ice.