HERE on the tundra, winter comes early. The chill winds blow in from Manitoba, rattling the reeds and bearing clouds of honking geese. Overnight, the leaves drop from the trees and the ground turns to iron. In the watery, late-afternoon light, the deer anxiously prick up their ears. Those of us tundra-dwellers who have had the foresight to leave buckets of water outside our sod huts now begin to study these vessels every morning, looking for the all-important signs: first the moment of imperceptible thickening, when the water seems to cloud with the syrupy density of vodka left overnight in the freezer, and then the moment of transformation, when floating there, reflecting your rime-crusted beard, is a lens of ice. Time then to get out the toques and the sweaters, the skates and the sticks. As we say on the tundra, time for a little shinny, eh?
I should explain that this particular stretch of tundra is in New Jersey – northern New Jersey. My sod hut, as it happens, contains three bedrooms and a two-car garage, and the deer out here have more to fear from the truck traffic along Route 17 than from any natural predator. But the ice is real. Thanks to a miracle of zoning, I live next to an 80-acre marsh that was farmed for peat during the Revolutionary War, and the remaining ponds and ditches, for some microclimatic reason, freeze at the drop of a hat. They freeze so solidly and sometimes with such clarity that while skating you can look down through the blackness and see fat golden carp slowly cruising beneath your feet.
We get more ice time on the Jersey tundra than I ever had in my native New England. I’ve skated out here as early as the day after Thanksgiving and as late as Saint Patrick’s Day. The ice, first a membrane, then a skin, then a solid, weight-bearing sheet of glass, usually locks in a few days before Christmas and, barring thaws, stays there till mid-February. And for those precious seven or eight weeks we actually play pond hockey out here – shinny, the Canadians call it: a now-vanishing game that is to the indoor, rink-bound version of hockey what that sheep-pasture game played by ancient Scottish shepherds is to golf. It’s the real thing – the better, purer version.
Like a lot of pond players, I also play rink hockey. I play year-round in a nearby rink with a team of aging diehards who once a week put on the full, chivalric rig-stockings, shorts, helmets, pads for elbows, shins, and shoulders. We’re part of that legion of late-night warriors whose numbers, thanks in part to the new, marketing-conscious NHL, are growing yearly; there are now more than 4,000 amateur adult teams in the United States alone. There are even instructional leagues for grown-up novices. Indoor hockey has an appeal all its own – the magic, for example, of walking through the rink door on a humid summer night and suddenly seeing your breath cloud up in front of your face. And rinks have something ponds do not: locker rooms – smelly, tape-littered havens where you can rag endlessly on friend and foe alike. Half the fun of the indoor game is playing it over afterward, while you’re taking off your stuff.
But I would trade a month of those nights for each hour on the pond on a good-ice day, and in a decade of living out here on the tundra I’ve come to know dozens of people who feel the same way. Sometimes we call one another on a Saturday or Sunday morning to trade weather information, but mostly we just show up automatically, bringing along our skates, our sticks, a snow shovel, if necessary, and maybe a jug of water and a peanut-butter or baloney sandwich that will be hard as a stone by the time we remember to eat it, hours later. Among our regulars are former high-school hotshots and even a few old college stars, including a guy, now in his sixties, who was an All-American. There’s a stockbroker who as a kid played roller hockey in Queens, a native Virginian and former baseball phenom who only started skating in middle age, and a high-school wrestling coach and phys-ed teacher who picked up the game in Ohio. My friend Paul learned his hockey in Czechoslovakia, as did his wife, Gigi, a splendid athlete and former ski champion; she wears white figure-skates and out-hustles most of us. We call her Mrs. Gretzky. At Christmastime there are the college kids and the grown-up children home for the holidays. There’s a regular band of reverse commuters: players who live not on the tundra but in the canyons of Manhattan and who on weekends squeeze themselves and all their stuff into my friend Alec’s tiny Toyota to make the journey out, swigging thermoses of coffee to wake up. On occasion we’ve been joined by a former all-pro linebacker (and schoolboy hockey player in Buffalo), who for a guy so huge has astonishingly small and nimble feet: He’s sort of like a bus on casters. And on one memorable gray February Sunday we played with the best pond player I’ve ever seen, a swarthy, heavyset guy with jet-black hair and round, dark eyes. He came with his own caddy, a younger guy, who didn’t play himself but lugged his companion’s sticks and skates and kept him hydrated with Gatorade and the occasional Miller tallboy. This player was so good he was almost invisible; on the ice he invariably turned up at the right spot at exactly the right instant. I remember once sort of draping myself on him to slow him down, and he stepped inside and then around me as easily as someone shrugging off a coat. He talked almost not at all, and I never got his name. Sometimes I think I must have dreamed him.
Ice. It’s a miracle, when you think about it, that the water you drink, the stuff that rains down from heaven in tiny droplets, can somehow knit itself into a substance so hard and so smooth that, sliding on it, you can defy friction itself. Quivering in the cold, six water molecules link themselves into a hexagonal crystal – and then keep growing, six sides at a time. (It’s tempting here to divine a cabalistic significance in the number of players on a hockey team and in the NHL’s longtime conviction that six was the final and appropriate number of cities to host professional teams.) The hexagons, yearning for solidarity, hook up to form a sheet, and the sheets eventually bind themselves together like pages in a book. And when the text of this book has not been distorted by rain or wind or melting snow, the naturally published version, dense and black, is immeasurably superior to the thin, milky, brine-cooled ice, often so brittle and air-filled, that’s manufactured by the compressors. A friend of mine who grew up playing hockey in California, of all places – on the indoor rinks of Oakland – once came out to the tundra and, as soon as he had laced up his skates and taken a few cautious steps, dropped to his knees and rubbed a mittened hand on the glassy ice in wonderment. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “We won’t fall through, will we?”
Well, we might. Nature isn’t perfect. Almost every year one of us goes through – a victim, usually, of overeagerness early in the season or after a thaw. I’ve taken the plunge several times, after ignoring the telltale cracks that with a boing or a pop launch themselves in every direction on ice that’s too thin. One year, at the end of a sunny February afternoon, my friend Ed found himself alone, like Little Eva, on a tilting ice floe, and we had to tow him back with outstretched hockey sticks. Where we play is actually pretty safe – the water is seldom more than waist-deep – and the experience of falling through here is more surprising and annoying than truly terrifying. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to believe that those cold fingers clamping themselves around your thighs, stabbing at your groin, are the steely grip of mortality itself. Presumably it was because of this, and because you can never really count on pond ice to be there when you want it, that they invented rinks.
Hockey itself was invented, depending on whom you believe, possibly by the Indians living in eastern Canada or maybe by British soldiers garrisoned there in the 19th century. (The name may come from hoquet, the French term for a shepherd’s crook, or from a corruption of the Iroquois expression for “It hurts!” – a cry uttered, presumably, by some unwary brave struck by a whizzing rock or skimming slice of birch tree: a proto-slap shot.) Whatever its origin, the game grew fastest, and took its deepest hold, not so much in the more settled parts of the continent as in the northern villages and in the westward-expanding homesteads: in the ponds and sloughs and rivers of the Canadian prairie. Hockey, like baseball, is essentially a pastoral game, one that celebrates freedom from urban confinement and care.
Some of that pastoral quality still lingered even when I was growing up, outside Boston, in the 50s and early 60s. I may be one of the last generation of Boston school kids who never skated on artificial ice until I started playing hockey in high school. All through grammar school I played on reservoirs and frozen playgrounds and ponds; we would sometimes trek for hours from one spot to another, our feet and fingers numb, in search of better ice – a kind of wintery grail, always shimmering just a little farther on.
The arrival of Bobby Orr, and the subsequent growth of organized youth hockey, changed all that. Nowadays, kids in Boston, like kids everywhere else, start playing indoors, on teams, when they are five or six years old, and some of them never venture onto a frozen pond or river at all. Youth hockey has become the yuppie growth sport of the nineties, even in the Sun Belt; new rinks are opening up in parks and at malls everywhere, and urged on by the likes of Nike and by the growth of the in-line skating fad, hundreds of thousands of non-skating moms and pops are eagerly shelling out the four or five hundred dollars it takes to outfit a young player, and then piling their sons (and in many cases their daughters) into the Cherokee or the Caravan for the ritual predawn road trip. By the time my son was 14 – the same age I was when I first stepped onto artificial ice – he had played some 350 indoor games in and around New Jersey: games with refs, scoreboards, stats, and screaming parent-fans. He, and lots of kids like him, knew half a dozen breakout plays and several forechecking systems, including the dreaded neutral-zone trap. He’d been to hockey camp, to power-skating clinics, to tournaments all over the East Coast.
Are these kids, reared indoors under the unhealthy, pallor-inducing glare of stadium lights and constantly sniffing Zamboni fumes, better players than we were, out there in God’s fresh air? Probably. But many coaches are ambivalent about the growth of organized youth hockey. There’s less ice time involved than it may seem, they point out: A game lasts only 45 minutes, and most kids play a third of that. And in teaching kids from a very early age all the systems of hockey – where to line up, where to sit on the bench, where to be on a three-on-two – we may have deprived them of some of the joy that comes from just playing, from fooling around and figuring things out on your own. Some coaches worry that a player with the individual skills of, say, a Gretzky or a Lafleur will never come from a car pool; he’ll come up, if he comes at all, the way Wayne and Guy did, from a frozen backyard in Ontario or from some homemade rink in rural Quebec. Pro hockey lore is replete with admiring tales about families like the Sutters of Viking, Alberta, or the Mullens of Hell’s Kitchen, in New York City, tales in which the kids played anywhere they could – on watering holes on the family farm or, on roller skates, on glass-littered schoolyards – and developed their skills far from the prying eyes of grown-ups.
Pond hockey is like jazz – or like playground basketball. It’s a game of solos and improvisations rather than of discipline and teamwork. You may start a game by saying, “OK, you guys play up. Bud here and I will stay back on dee,” but it never works that way for long. Pretty soon you and Bud are dashing up-ice, leaving the goal unattended, and on the way you pass your teammates, huffing and puffing now and wearily cruising back. A bad pond game is one in which, because of exhaustion or because the ice is now so chewed up and covered with snow, everyone sags back in front of his own goal; the offence gets a free ride, in effect, and then for the last 10 feet or so has to thread the puck through a forest of lumber, sticks whacking and chopping and tripping. (This must be where the name “shinny” comes from – from the part of your body that bears the brunt of such mayhem.) A good pond game is one that rewards crisp, strung-together passes (they have to be right on the money, though: a pass that goes awry means a delay, sometimes lasting a couple of minutes, while someone chases down the errant, still-sliding puck) and also individual heroics-rushes and spins and behind-the-back passes, if you can manage them; the old drawback (show it to him, take it away!) always earns style points, as does puck-handling with your feet.
In pond hockey, it’s the journey, not the end, that matters. The goal, a pair of boots dropped on the ice a few feet apart, is merely a symbol, and who knows what the score is anyway? I remember most of my indoor goals with Proustian clarity and vividness: the five-holer I wristed in from the top of the circle on last September 19, for example, or the seeing-eye slap shot I launched from the point at about 11:45 p.m. on July 25, the day after my 49th birthday, thereby proving that there is life in the old dog yet. But my pond memories are longer and more capacious. They’re about whole stretches of time, sometimes speeded up, so that an entire late-January afternoon is summed up in the image of a brief flurry of snowflakes glinting silver against the purple-streaked sky, and sometimes slowed down, so that I can replay in endless slo-mo a coast-to-coast rush I once made right along the pond edge, dodging overhanging branches and hopping over the occasional stone or log, tossed there by some more timid soul trying to test the thickness of the ice.
My favourite memories are of the early mornings when I used to skate for an hour or so before school with my son. We’d get up when it was still dark, and the sun would just be coming up, turning the marsh grass gray-gold, as my freezing fingers finished lacing his skates. We’d play one-on-one together or do little passing drills, and sometimes we’d just skate in parallel arcs and swirls – apart and yet together. He’s off at college now, but I still go out in the early mornings. One of the best things about pond hockey is that you don’t need anybody else; you can play all by yourself, listening to the rustle of the wind, the scrape of your skates, and once in a while the imagined commentary of Foster Hewitt, the voice of Hockey Night in Canada, shouting your name and crying, “He shoots, he scores!” Sometimes I’m joined out there by my friend Dave, usually in his hooded red sweatshirt, working on his backward crossovers. My son is always there, too, in recollection, and now and then literally, when he’s home on vacation. And in recent years I’ve been joined on occasion by a tall, taciturn man in a brown leather jacket and gray fedora, wielding an old straight-bladed Northland Pro hockey stick wrapped in electrician’s tape – the ghost of my father, who first taught me how much fun this was. All the time I was growing up, he was a notoriously late riser. I’m glad that he’s changed his ways.
*Charles McGrath is the editor of the New York Times Book Review.
From Shunpiking Magazine. Originally published in Outside Magazine, February 1997.