Monday, March 14, 2011

Essay: Ice Outside

A little over seven years ago, just before Thanksgiving, I was picking up a bat from a teammate at the conclusion of our men's league baseball season. Jack was as sick as a dog when he told me it was okay to stop by to get it, a fact only made evident when I arrived at his house to find him in his pajamas and wrapped in a blanket, doing his best impression of a premortem Marley. His wife Rose was so sick she never came out from the bedroom; even their daughter was sick. Illness hung over the place like a fog.

I eyed Jack, eyed the bat, and made plans for a quick exit.

"Check this out, Tom,” Jack said feebly, a hand jutting out from under the blanket towards the TV. On the screen was a hockey game, easy enough to see, but it was being played outdoors in a huge football stadium.

“Oilers-Habs, outside in Edmonton. They're calling it the Heritage Classic. I get CBC,” he threw in, pride momentarily trumping misery.

I was immediately hooked, and quickly grabbed a seat sans invite. The temps had plummeted so precipitously during the game that the ice was now brittle and began breaking up, with the puck skittering erratically all over the rink. The Canadiens’ goalie, Jose Theodore, had a tuque pulled atop of his mask. Vapor plumes spewed from the players with every effort. The game, although a regular season contest, had a carefree recklessness long absent from pro sports as they have become increasingly lucrative, and conservative in taking needless risks. Somebody could certainly get hurt if they caught a blade on the sketchy ice, the puck could randomly bounce past a goalie for a cheap decisive goal, Theodore’s tuque could fly off. Who knows?

Watching the Classic was seeing a professional league with its guard down; it was letting itself and its fans have fun for the night, with profit taking a backseat. I loved it. The Oilers put the game on and, after investing millions in the affair, weren’t even sure they would clear anything for their trouble. It was a “Thank You” to their fans and over 57,000 of them showed up despite a wind chill of -22 F as the game wore on into the Alberta night.

I said goodbye with a wave following the final horn, didn’t contract anything terminal, and Jack and his family rebounded in due course. The game made a far more lasting impression than any lingering germs. Although not literally on a pond, it evoked in me the open air allure of its implied predecessor: pond hockey.

I was never a rink rat, but I played pickup as a teen on a pond replete with crusty snow and rutted ice, my cheeks blossoming red as the games wore on. I was never good, but it was the rare sport in which being good was a distant second to being out there. Something told me then that, with my talent level, these were found moments, and that I would let life encroach on them in the ensuing years with relative ease, as it has. A hip check from bills, repairs, and the daily grind would surely put pond hockey on its back.

The pond experience appeals inordinately to America (and of course, Canada) as reflected in the perennially high TV numbers for the Winter Classic, the league’s New Year Day successor to the Heritage Classic. This year’s Caps-Pens contest was the most-watched regular season NHL game in 36 years. On a day dominated by college football, a hockey game now carves out a considerable niche in the TV market. It's not entirely pro hockey itself—a regular season (read: indoor) game would raise nary an eyebrow outside the NHL faithful—so some part of its popularity must be due to the "pond" that it's played on. This year, the game received an extra boost from the elements when early rains pushed it into prime-time and away from some of the bowl games. Pond hockey in prime time, if you will.

With the roaring economy of the mid-'90s to mid-'00s came a boom in arenas built for the indoor game; I can think of several indoor rinks built in metro-Baltimore alone, hardly a hockey hotbed. Simultaneously with the growth in the number of arenas has been a general increase in societal safety-consciousness. When you were a kid, did you wear a helmet when you skated, rode a bike, or skateboarded? Heck, I remember jumping off the garage roof without a helmet. By today’s mores, the prospect of skating outdoors on a pond, with its potential for a break through the ice is a prohibitively dangerous affair.

I experienced this firsthand that same winter of 2003 when I took to the ice at a local pond, which was all of 6 inches deep at its most proud. It was more of a flood plain, and my sons and I brought out a few pucks and sticks and “noodled around” as George Plimpton might have described it.

During our short stint out there, no less than a half-dozen parents called out to me, their voices grave with concern. “Hey! What are you doing?” was the most common refrain. I had one parent divert her child’s gaze and walk-run away from us rather than risk having him realize that someone might skate on a frozen pond. I would just lift my stick, smile, and think “So this is what we’ve become,” as I politely lipped aloud, “It’s fine, really, it’s not deep,” then pointed to a bottom-lying rock that protruded from the ice.

Summer in metro-Baltimore is an air-quality alarmist’s delight; to be speeding around outside in haltingly clean air for a change was worth the risk of damp ankles if we broke through the ice. It was exhilarating. I’d had the boys out on some makeshift rinks I’d erected in the backyard, but they were nothing compared to this broad expanse and Mother Nature had done all the work.

But maybe there’s something other than a personal recollection of a simpler game in these outdoor affairs. In the Mid-Atlantic, at least, so few people now skate outdoors, perhaps the games are a vision of what we should do in winter, rather than a recollection of what we really do. A Currier & Ives appreciation rather than a memory.

Further north, the appeal of the NHL’s outdoor Classics is more obvious. I recently watched the documentary Pond Hockey, a feature-length-film devoted entirely to the topic, which chronicled the pond hockey championships now held annually in Minneapolis. Almost everyone interviewed in the film had spent significant time out on a pond, and opined against the sanitizing trend for young skaters to learn the game indoors. Noted players such as Wayne Gretzky and Neal Broten weighed in, as well as U.S. Pond Hockey Championships co-founder, Fred Haberman. “You see out here all these adults playing as if they were kids… with their friends from grade school, high school, college…. You don’t see too much of that.”

Last week, we turned on the second incarnation of that original Heritage Classic, this time set in Calgary. I was curious to see if the boys, now collectively availed of more electronic distractions than NASA, would be interested in the simple notion of an NHL game played outdoors. The game again featured the Canadiens, this time as guests of the Flames. Calgary was dressed to the nines in retro-uniforms that had an undeniable “Where’s Waldo?” look to them (maybe the league was doubling down their nostalgia bet by appealing to our inner Waldo-ite). We settled down and watched the game from start to finish, even though it proved to be no contest as the surging Flames easily handled the Habs, 4-0. Talk of our outdoor skating abounded, and we collectively pined away for our days out on the pond.

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