I have to say that I had one of THE BEST childhoods ever because winters in Buffalo were insane with snow and frozen ponds. I look forward to the Labatt Pond Hockey tournament every year, and I think it’s because I played so much hockey growing up – indoors, outdoors, pond hockey, street hockey, mini hockey in the hallways of hotels; hockey was my life, needless to say. But honestly, one of the greatest memories I had growing up was going over to my teammate’s house to play pond hockey.
I remember my parents would drop me off early in the morning with all of my hockey gear, all of my outside snow gear, extra clothes and some groceries – at the time I never really understood why I went over to my friend’s house with food, but now as an adult, I get it…as a kid, I ate, like A LOT, my parents never sent me over to any of my friends’ houses without food, or at least some cash to chip in. I’m pretty sure they were afraid I would eat them out of house and home… I came close a few times.
Anyway…I would love to head over to the Kneer’s house. We would get our gear on and trek out to the backyard and tie our skates by the pond. There were benches out there to sit on, I always made sure to put my boots in my hockey bag to they would not fill up with snow while we were on the pond. But nothing was like putting my bucket on, snapping it up, taking that first step on that hard ice and taking off. Mr. Kneer made sure there were plenty of pucks, but the beaten up posts and hole-y nets made it feel like home. The crisp air hit my lungs and burned my throat, snot frozen to my face and frost bitten toes, all disappeared. I was playing hockey, that’s all that mattered. Timmy and I would play from early morning until dark. We skipped lunch, maybe we had a few water breaks, but we just skated and played. The hours melted away and it wasn’t until his mother would screamed at us (around the 4th time) and I could hear the annoyance in her voice that it was time for us to get off the ice. I pulled my boots out of my bag, untied my skates and headed back towards the house. Peeling off my sweaty, soaking wet gear and threw it in my bag, sat on the couch, sipped my hot chocolate and began to thaw out.
Timmy and I would sit on the couch and play Nintendo – Duck Hunt mainly – sip our hot chocolate and then when food was placed in front of us, it didn’t stay on the plate long. I was starving; it usually burned my tongue and throat as I shoveled it into my face. I didn’t care how hot it was, I was so hungry and cold, and it warmed me up immediately. Eventually my parents would come to get me; I loaded up my dad’s truck with my soaking, snowy gear and headed home. I pulled all my gear out and spread it out in the living room, put my skates right next to the heat vent, crawled upstairs, peeled off my long underwear, got in the shower and my skin felt like pins and needles. I would stumble into bed and pass out from not just exhaustion but pure enjoyment.
Those were the days.
So when I was asked to join a pond hockey team for the Labatt tournament, I leaped with excitement for the opportunity. Being outside in the cold air brings such a remarkable amount of joy to my heart – I sometimes forget my age and play as I did when I was a kid. The smell of the cold air filling my lungs, the sun gleaming off the ice and the layers of clothing you start with compared to what you end with makes everything disappear. I honestly think that’s why I became a coach – I just could not give up that simple pleasure of being on the ice. I think what I miss most about playing as a kid is having two or three games in a day, going back to the hotel, playing mini hockey in the hospitality room, going to bed and doing it all over again the following day. The pond hockey tournament is pretty much the same format; we played two games on Friday and twogames on Saturday. My team lost, but just being out on the ice, moving the puck, gliding on the ice, being part of a team again, the air smelled just that much sweeter that day. It had nothing to do with the fact General Mills was pumping out Cheerios.
Who would have ever thought as I trekked my gear out on that frozen pond at the age of seven or eight, I would go from the pond to pro? In one form or another, I’m still part of the game. I know I’ve written about the defining moment in my life when I chose to be a hockey player, but I think that day on the pond in the Kneer’s backyard, hockey chose to have me. We’ve had an incredible journey together – it’s been my longest relationship, that’s for sure. Hockey is and always has been my one true love. I will continue to lace up my skates, work on my skills until I can no longer carry my own bag (I refuse to get a roller bag, so do not even suggest it), until my lungs can no longer tell the difference between hockey arena air and fresh scent of a frozen pond. I will continue to love you, hockey, no matter how many bruises, broken bones, blood, sweat or tears we share together, I’m here until my very last whistle.