Now that flip-flops and T-shirts have been replaced with shoes, hoodies and jackets, the change of seasons is official. Driving to my Sunday night hockey game three weeks removed from a knee operation, I was anticipating how things may go, but instead the sprinkling of snowflakes across the 401 took my thoughts elsewhere. The Leafs passing the 25-game mark and the Grey Cup now complete are clearly signs that winter was around the corner but something was still missing.
With Led Zeppelin playing on the car radio, it finally dawned on me what was missing. Over the past few weeks I haven’t noticed a single road hockey game on the street or at one of the many schoolyards in the neighbourhood. It’s not a new revelation that street hockey has become a fading pastime, even illegal in some parts of the city; it still doesn’t make it any less sad to see.
In the fall of 1961, I was playing in the basement of our Scarborough home when my dad bounded down the steps with a bag of hockey equipment. He quickly outfitted me before making the 15-minute drive to McGregor Park for what would be a life-changing moment that day.
Looking around a stuffy, cramped room with a bunch of kids my age wearing the same sweater pulled over winter coats, dads tightening their skates, we all had that same puzzled expression on our faces. “Where the heck are we?”
Making our way onto the freshly shoveled ice surface with a crisp winter breeze filling our lungs, we were playing hockey for real. McGregor was an outdoor facility at the time so the slapping of sticks, pucks hitting the boards, the smells, seeing your breath, were all magnified beyond playing on the streets or running around our backyards.
At one point the puck ended up on my stick in front of the other teams net and with cat-like reflexes (more like a rusted door in slow motion) I slapped, make that pushed the puck towards the goal. What followed was that magnificent feeling of elation players experience when a puck goes in the net. Even playing 60-year old beer league today that feeling never goes away. The puck I shot that day hit the back bar of the square net, never leaving the ice and made a loud ringing clang (more like a ting) sound. Looking up I immediately caught eyes with my dad standing behind the goal who in a delayed reaction lifted his arms. Norman Rockwell had his next cover for the Saturday Evening Post, what a moment! The fact I was 25 feet offside and supposed to be playing defense, nullified my heroics. That wasn’t the moment!
On the way home my dad asked if I enjoyed playing and did I want to go back? I quickly answered yes to both; that was the moment!
I became obsessed with hockey, playing any chance I could, whether on the street, basement, or the local schoolyard outdoor rink. Most of the kids in the neighbourhood had the same passion to play so I always had someone to take shots with or start a pickup game. Granted it was a much simpler time with no Internet, game boy or 500 channels on TV as distractions. Our version consisted of tuning in the cartoons on the family black and white television, with rabbit ears for reception.
Today the game has become extremely technical with specialized shooting, passing and skating, motivated by the fear of failure or falling behind your age group if these vital fundamentals are ignored.
Challenges entering high school, not only in the classroom, but athletics, social activities and earning money with part time jobs are forcing kids to quit the game. The pressure of upcoming adulthood is tough enough for a teenager; why add the game of hockey with a full-time commitment and no end game? Those kids figure out pretty quickly that it’s more rewarding to have A’s on your report card rather than a hockey jacket.
But what if that kid is a late bloomer and never given the opportunity to find out how good he could become? Growth spurts, training, maturity are traits a late bloomer may develop or an early phenom may lose.
I believe Global warming has been impactful because in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, winters were long and cold, with lots of snow. Activities for kids were very limited so hours spent outside playing hockey, filled the void. The team each kid played for in competitive hockey was never a consideration because on the street or local outdoor rink everyone was equal.
The game of hockey at the pro-level has gotten younger, faster and more skilled; clearly the most competitive of the entire major sports today.
My concern isn’t the pro-level but statistics showing a significant decline of kids playing today. The cost along with limited ice facilities is deterrents limiting the growth of the game in Canada and that’s a fact. However kids lucky enough to play are encouraged by parents and friends, more as a necessity than for the right reason, to have fun.
There is something to be said playing an outdoor game of shiny trying to stickhandle around a dozen players on the other side. Most kids today rarely experience the thrill of playing outdoors therefore the passion and fun is lost in the demands of shooting clinics, off ice training or 3 practices a week.
About 10 years ago I played in a charity game at Leaside Arena and took my then 12-year old son Ryan to watch me play. I was very excited because it was at Leaside, I watched my dad play as a kid and knew the rink inside out. I recounted to Ryan how before my dad headed down the steps to the dressing room, he’d hand me 25-cents for the snack bar. I’d stuff the quarter in my pocket and make a beeline into the rink hunting for broken sticks, stray pucks or strands of tape to make shooting objects.
What made the Sunday morning trips to Leaside Arena even more exciting was Frank Mahovlich’s dad ran the skate-sharpening booth. Proudly I recalled hanging around his booth, hiding from the rink attendants trying to breaking up our impromptu mini games. A father cherishes sharing a childhood adventure with his son hoping one day he’ll pass the bonding moment along to his own.
Finishing my quick summary of life as a rink rat, I took a breath and waited anxiously for Ryan’s reaction; with his hand out for his treat money he said,
Dad why didn’t you just bring your mini-sticks from home?”
Dejectedly I handed him a toonie, he mumbled thanks, looked down at his game-boy and headed into the seating.