We are now entering my favourite time of the year. Yes, it’s the Christmas season, which in and of itself is awesome, but the best part of all is the official arrival of winter — when everything is frozen, there’s snow on the ground and it starts getting dark at 4 p.m. As a kid growing up in Dryden, Ontario, that only meant one thing: hockey. In fact, this time of year meant A LOT of hockey. The thought of two weeks off school for the Christmas holidays was almost too much to bear. It almost made me look forward to going to school because every day that passed got me closer to my hockey vacation.
My Christmas vacation was pretty simple: My brother Chris and I would wake up, gobble down two to three bowls of cereal, wait for our buddies to wake up, get dressed, go outside and take shots on net, work on our passing, work on our one-timers, play a little one-on-one, and then, finally, when our friends arrived, play a game of road hockey. That was our morning. Our afternoon itinerary looked very similar. We’d come in for lunch (possibly with all the guys), scarf down soup, sandwiches and some homemade Christmas cookies. We would then get dressed back up in our winter gear and grab our skates. Our next stop was the outdoor rink. Fortunately, we had an outdoor rink a block and a half away. We’d head over there and shovel an area big enough to play on. Rarely, was the entire rink shovelled off before we arrived. However, if enough guys showed up we’d use the whole rink. That was the best; playing full ice. We’d usually play seven-on-seven or something ridiculous like that. No refs, no off-sides, no line changes, no intermissions — no problem. We played for hours. There’s something to be said about unstructured games as a kid…but I digress.
My brother and I would always be captain on opposing teams. However, what’s funny is that about 30 minutes into the game, we would have to reorganize everyone so that he and I could play on the same team. It wasn’t because one team was smoking the other. It was because the game continually had to be stopped to break Chris and I up from fighting. Since we were the two best players now playing on the same team, we would have to give the other team one or two extra guys. It usually didn’t matter. Those were the days — not a care in the world other than praying the lights at the outdoor rink would work so we could play just a little longer or until “the next goal wins.”
Around 6 p.m., we would all go to our neutral corners (home) for dinner. Depending on the day, we might reconvene in front of my house for one last road hockey session. By this stage of day, we would only play for an hour or so before we’d start working on perfecting our hip checks on one another. The snow drifts were so high that they made great landing zones. However, since it was the Christmas holiday, at some point the World Junior Tournament would be underway. If there was a game that night (or during the day), all hockey playing activities were postponed until the Canada game was over.
I loved the anticipation the night before Christmas. New hockey gear was always on our Christmas list. So, it was exciting to see what new piece of equipment Santa was going to bring to the Pronger house. I can’t remember how many times Chris and I got new sticks for Christmas and would practice taping them right away. We’d spend hours perfecting the knob of the stick. These new “wood” sticks were only to be used at the indoor rink for regular hockey games and possibly for a little bit of practise. They were not to be used at any outdoor or street hockey facility! Imagine today’s kids bringing their $300 composite hockey stick to an outdoor rink just to watch it shatter within minutes — ouch!
At least once during the Christmas break we’d go out to see a friend of ours who lived on Wabigoon Lake. It was usually after high winds had come through that night and blown the snow off its frozen surface. It was music to my ears when my buddy called to invite the “boys” out for a game of pick-up on Wabigoon. There is no better feeling in the world than playing a game of hockey on a 300- by 200-foot sheet of ice. And by the way, there may not be a better sheet of ice than a frozen lake. We’d stay out there for hours until one of us was at risk of frostbite and then we’d take shelter in the basement by the fire until all of us were thawed out — and then it was back out there for more.
I’m not sure if you can tell, but I miss being a kid. I miss putting on my ski pants, I miss being excited to see the snow fall, I miss being really excited when the ice was ready at the outdoor rink. Most of all, I miss those cold winter days in Northwestern Ontario.