Last winter when we visited Minnesota, I took my 2�-year-old daughter, Eliza, to see the playground and outdoor hockey rink that I used to play on. The old boxcar warming house had been replaced by a glazed brick recreation center, and the rink itself had yielded to a couple of all-weather tennis courts, but just standing on that frozen ground brought back to me a special feeling. Perhaps it was the company. I was about my daughter's age when I began trailing my big brother to the playground.
I grew up in his shadow, and a long, protective shadow it was. Dean was tall, lanky—or so I remember him—and by every account a great athlete. He could throw perfect spirals, hit the hide off a baseball and slap a puck in the air the length of the ice. Though he lived barely 13 years, he's still talked about as the best hockey player Desnoyer Park ever produced.
Desnoyer Park is a small, triangular section of St. Paul on the cusp of Minneapolis, bordered by the Mississippi River, a golf course and Interstate 94. As anyone who has ever lived in Minnesota knows, the only way parents keep from going crazy during the hard winters is by shoving their kids outdoors. While I was growing up, the hub of athletic activity in this mostly working-class neighborhood was the Desnoyer Park playground, a partially wooded acre where each winter the pavement was flooded to produce two rinks—one for hockey and the other for general skating.
Desnoyer Park and its Improvement Association could afford jerseys only for the Bantam team (age 8 to 10). The Pee Wees (age 11 to 14) just showed up at games wearing roughly the same colors. At the end of each season parents bought their kids a Desnoyer Park "letter" jacket, if the kid didn't already have one. My brother had had one for as long as I could recall, and for a couple of months in 1958 he wore it every day while teaching me how to lift a puck in our basement.
Dean had the idea that I, at the age of six, was ready to master the wrist shot, the sweep shot and the backhand. From the moment I had laced up my sister's hand-me-down skates at age three, skating had come as naturally to me as walking. I also possessed something that rink rats call "hockey sense," which eventually led to my being elected captain of my high school team and earned me the dubious distinction of twice being the ECAC Sophomore of the Week at Williams College. But at six, I was small for my age—fast, but small—with puny wrists and forearms. I could barely stick-handle the puck, much less maneuver that long piece of ash to lift it.
When the warming house closed in late February, my brother took me into the basement to teach me how to shoot. First, he lopped about 18 inches off the shaft of my Northland stick, so that it reached just under my chin. Then he gave me a wrist-strengthening program. He nailed a length of clothesline to the piece of severed stick shaft and tied a rock to the clothesline. For 10 minutes each day I held the stick at arm's length, twisting it so that the rope coiled around it, lifting the rock off the floor.
For a boy of 12, Dean's tutoring was pretty sophisticated. He drew a hockey net on the wall, with windows to the upper and lower corners. Anyone could flick a shot up high, he counseled, and the goalie had a much better chance of stopping a high shot. The best shot was low and hard, just a couple of inches off the ice. He demonstrated a sweep shot, drawing the puck way behind him, the blade of the stick cradling the puck at about a 45-degree angle to the ice, his weight on the opposite foot. Then he swept the puck forward, drawing power from his twisting torso, and flicked his wrists just as the puck left the stick.
It took about a month before I had the strength to begin mastering his techniques. But soon I was getting the puck off the basement floor, however weakly, and hitting the lower windows of the goal. Then Dean taught me the backhand, a far easier shot. It was a lot like tossing a shovelful of snow, something I'd had plenty of experience doing. The wrist shot was like the sweep shot, without the sweep.
For the rest of that winter and early into the spring, Dean and I went to the basement every morning to practice our shots. For the first 10 minutes I did the wrist-building exercises while he zinged 40 or 50 shots against the wall. Then, using a steel brush, he erased the black marks left by the puck, and I started shooting.
In April Dean got sick—a cold that wouldn't go away. He lost his appetite, his strength and his color. Blood tests showed a wildly high white cell count. It meant only one thing, leukemia, the kind that now can often be cured. By the end of the summer of 1958 he was dead.