From the moment I could toddle without great risk of thumping my head on objects in my path, Mom’s unvarying instructions to my older brothers before they hurtled out the door for all manner of improvised adventure was always, “Watch your little sister, please.”
“Sure, Mom,” was their standard reply, never breaking stride and never glancing back, but assuming — accurately — that I would tail them wherever they went. Whether I have a right to be, I am reassured in my belief that they took that responsibility seriously, and would never let harm come to me. At least that’s what I say now. As a child, I was pretty skeptical that they were in full accord with the mantra of “leave no soldier behind”.
Behind our grandparents’ farmhouse at 1777 South Street were three small ponds tucked into a wooded area. They were imaginatively named “The First Pond”, “The Second Pond”, and “The Third Pond”. Rarely were they ideal for skating because the surface would be covered with leaves, twigs and branches, or snow. For early efforts at learning to ice skate, however, they should have been perfect. There were frozen streams, too, that connected the three ponds, allowing you to conveniently skate from one to the next. I was forever pursuing my older brothers, who, without warning, would all race off to the next pond. I think I cried a lot when they did that; without their reassuring nearness, scary woodland creatures could easily pick me off. As I watched their receding figures cut a swift and serpentine path away from me, I couldn’t help but contrast their elegance with my own on-ice conduct. Where their movements were fluid — there’s undeniable and exquisite beauty in skating (especially on those long stretches of straight-away where the arms and legs form a harmony of sweeps and arcs as one’s stride lengthens) —all I managed to do was walk around gingerly, tentatively, objecting to the foreignness of my figure skates. With crooked ankles nearly grazing the ice and arms akimbo, mine was a style that forced my body to either do splits every eight feet or so, or go horizontal to land flat on my back, whereupon I lay motionless and studied the undulating tips of the trees stroking the sky directly above me. One can only hold that position for a few minutes before the cold forces you back on your feet.
Whenever the command “move!” was issued as I crossed into areas where frenzied hockey action was taking place, I responded with a fresh startle reflex much like an infant who has been presented with a sudden loud noise or a bright light, my feet shooting out from under me and my arms splaying. I was better at locating logs to sit on. . . and even better at experiencing hypothermia, giving me yet another reason to cry. I should add that I did have an indispensable role; whenever the puck sailed into the surrounding woods, I was sent to retrieve it. It was an honor to be serving in such an essential role. Consequently, my skates were regularly being taken to the shop for sharpening. (I can’t even say that with a straight face.) I grew up not very fond of skating. . . until I met David, and Johnson’s Pond in Raynham provided a new venue for that dance that teenage boys and girls do in large unsupervised groups. My feet were just as cold then, too, but I didn’t mind. At least I didn’t cry.
All my brothers were groomed from an early age to be ice hockey players, and I was groomed to be spectator par excellence. Mom and Dad imagined themselves, at least in the beginning, as devoted hockey parents. Mom, for her part, was always there when called upon to shout at the refs or rattle the cow bell when a goal was scored. Easy to spot in her red quilted “car coat” among the fans in the bleachers, she was a little woman with a big voice. She did not need the cow bell. My grandfather, whose world revolved around music, had only ever foreseen for his oldest daughter one application for all that training in voice, that careful development of the diaphragm, and it wasn’t to give full and honeyed expression to the soprano section of dedicated fans. It was to skewer the referee with comments like, “Hennessy, you’re a dink!”
In rinks all over the South Shore I watched my brothers on the ice, and I watched Mom watching them. As a teenager, I then expanded my spectating to include my younger brothers who began their training by pushing wooden boxes or kitchen chairs all over the ice. Organized youth hockey programs were just taking off in our region; their popularity quickly skyrocketed, propelling hordes of youngsters throughout my town to the area’s frozen bodies of water; there were several ponds and lakes — as one would expect in a town called Bridgewater — that provided great conditions for skating: Carver Pond, Skeeter Mill Pond, Sturtevant’s Corner, and the Ice Pond (aka State Farm Pond). Unfortunately — but unsurprisingly — ice skating never struck me as especially fun; on those occasions when I did take to the ice myself, I would be the lone skater, trying over and over to perform a simple move such as stopping forward motion or resuming forward motion. . . artistically. I never progressed, and as impressed as I was with Peggy Fleming, her moves just totally confounded me; how did she spin so fast and leap so high. . . all with such grace and beauty? I only knew it had something to do with physics. . . I think.
The 1960’s and 70’s were the sweet spot, I believe, for pick-up hockey games in which teams were naturally selected by blood ties. The baby boom generation — lots of families with lots of kids — provided a ripe culture for casual team sports. The Bruins’ success, too, in the early 70’s converted young spectators into NHL aspirants. Although gear was optional, hockey gloves were one of the more prized pieces of equipment, given that rules of engagement were rather loose, and hands were constantly getting smashed. It didn’t matter if they were mismatched, or had holes, or even fit properly; when two players squared off, as long as those gauntlets could be thrown down in a flash, they served their greatest purpose. On the other hand, a helmet, perhaps the most important appurtenance from a long-term health standpoint, was audaciously absent. Although randomly assembled teams were a perfectly suitable option, in many cases entire teams could be made up of a single family or a neighborhood combination of families. Hence, there were rivalries that evolved rather organically; the Morrisseys and Maloneys, for example, nurtured a competitive relationship that regularly included family sponsored fighting. Kevin, of course, in his typically zealous manner, nobly did his part for the Morrisseys. As feared as he might have been by his foes, there was genuine admiration of his skill set, which extended even to ice surface management. Few kids, for example, would risk submerging their own vehicles in order to clear the ice of snow. As the shinny baton was later passed to younger brothers Marty and Bob, the family names changed; the Heslin brothers and the Blakelys brought greater finesse and skill to the pond hockey scene. At this point, kids could just generally boast a more expansive indoctrination. Organized hockey had truly arrived in Bridgewater.
Pick-up style hockey continued to enjoy popularity in subsequent decades, but, naturally, the game has experienced a metamorphosis. What we observe in the sport today is akin to a coming-of-age; rarely do we see genuine, improvised games on local ponds. It catches our eye when we do see a small clutch of kids with sticks in hand, movement back and forth between two makeshift goals on a suitably frozen pond. Even the length of the season has shortened; in earlier years it might have been possible, at least in coastal Massachusetts, to take to the ice in November; extended periods of cold are much rarer these days.
Baby boomers never really left their passion behind, however. Pick-up games now more readily conjure ice rink settings, and schedules are firmly set, leaving one to wonder about the persistence of the name. And if you live in cold winter states such as Minnesota or Colorado, outdoor pick-up tournaments, which draw thousands of participants and are often sponsored by big-name purveyors of beer, bring you that much closer to your unfulfilled dream of playing professionally. They’re highly organized programs, with perimeter boards and goalie nets that are the real deal, (one even boasts Zamboni service!), so prepare accordingly. Make sure you arrive with matching gloves, fashion forward attire and a mouthguard for your few remaining original teeth.
As impressed as I am with the dedication and zeal displayed by players in the “well beyond their prime” age bracket, there is no other way to describe my own experiences on the ice than to say that they were fraught. My tenure as spectator — of the plein-air and local rink sort — provided more pleasurable memories, even if these days I now greatly prefer an experience that involves a large screen TV while sitting on a couch. . . with a cozy afghan. . . and a beverage (cold or hot, it wouldn’t matter). My heart twists, though, whenever I inveigh against a controversial call by the ref; it’s as if I’ve been transported back to those state rinks throughout the South Shore, when several times in any given game my mom’s voice would boom across the ice, poetically goring an earnest ref whose only crime was wielding a whistle. Good memories, after all.
(This is a revision of a story that first appeared in my Scosche of Class Blog in March, 2019.)