I’m going to skate this afternoon. It will be indoors, of course, which is about the only kind of skating anyone does around here anymore. I know it will be a blast. I love to skate, even if it is a lot like my job, mostly going in circles, traction dubious.
Roughly 150 people from my church will be there. My parish does this every year. We spend about an hour on the ice and about another hour drinking hot chocolate, devouring doughnuts, and reminding one another that this is the time of year when we should make time for more skating, more laughs, more doughnuts.
All of that is true, though I suspect none of us really needs more doughnuts in our lives. Even Dunkin’ Donuts has scaled way back on those. Dunkin’ has done to doughnuts what National Cash Register has done to cash registers. The name’s there, but the go-to product really isn’t the product anymore. It got up and went. I hope this never happens to Budweiser. I pray, ardently each Thursday, that it never happens to the Globe.
But, sorry, I’m going in circles here. Back to the skating.
I’ve skated since the late ’50s, starting long before indoor rinks were prevalent or fashionable. Honestly, I didn’t know they existed until the early ’60s, because I’d never seen one on TV, there wasn’t one close to my hometown, my folks never mentioned them, and my big sister wasn’t much into sports. If you’re 5 years old and all that’s working against you, you’re pretty much relegated to a winter of parking a Flexible Flyer just outside the back door for the next storm and a pair of hockey skates and wool socks drying by the furnace in anticipation of a good sheet of ice.
But we all know this is New England, and good sheets are like winter daylight, scarce and fleeting. In my hometown, we were fortunate that the fire department’s winter duties included flooding a rink that was carved out of an open field in the center of town.
Our town’s high school hockey team often held practices on that ice, no matter its cracks, crevices, and puck-devouring potholes. It was exciting to be a little kid and see the humongous varsity hockey players tearing up and down the ice, hear their shots, their shouts, their laughter echo through the surrounding tall pines.
Pretty organic, huh? I suppose it feels archaic, even corny, by today’s polished, indoor rink standards with boards and Zambonis, piped-in music and vending machines. But I can tell you it was a winter’s dream to see the firemen pull up in their clean, shiny red trucks at Page Field early on a Friday evening, unfurl their hoses, and attach them to nearby hydrants for the curative “fresh flood.’’
The scene was a fireman’s brigade of boots, wrenches, gloves, helmets, flashlights, long winter coats, red faces, spewing water, and, every now and then, the well-placed, perfectly pitched four-letter word. It’s how I learned swearing goes hand in wrench with getting #@*!! things to work.
It was ever more exciting to be back at that same spot the next morning, hockey skates in hand, stick over shoulder, jacket pockets stuffed with pucks, to be among the first on the new ice. A gift from hockey heaven.
Those moments on a glistening new sheet were rare. It was far more common to find the sheet covered in snow. I’m sure we all spent more time shoveling than skating. A half-century later with my back now the orthopedic equivalent of a five-car fender-bender, I know exactly the position — shovel edge angled toward the rink’s edge, upper body stooped forward — that set the damage in motion.
Not that I’m complaining. The pain stinks, but I have the memories, and I’m thankful to remain mobile enough to enjoy my afternoon skate.
Years ago, I went around the Bruins’ dressing room and asked each player if he had ever skated outside. No one. Shutout. I can’t say it was every player on the roster, but most every player was there that day and not one of them ever had logged a shift in the great outdoors.
I sort of felt sorry for those guys. No firemen. No shoveling. No asking their pal’s dad to pull his car close to rink’s edge with headlights on and motor running so we could skate and shoot long into the night. No big old rubber boots spaced a shovel’s length apart as goal posts. No high-stepping into the snowy field in search of lost pucks. Really, what’s outdoor hockey without peering into a moonlit field, snow up to your knees, helplessly searching for a chunk of black rubber?
I know the comparison wasn’t fair, but when the players told me they never skated outside I wondered how a skier or bobsledder or luger would feel if he or she never took their game outdoors. Skating and hockey were born in fresh air. Now they’re both there alongside Dunkin’s and NCR, existing, doing just fine, but in an entirely different form.
The NHL is really getting back into the outdoors. It has rolled out its highly successful New Year’s Day special, the Winter Classic, setting up outdoor rinks in recent years in Boston, as well as Buffalo, Chicago, and elsewhere. This Jan. 1 they’re going to have slightly fewer than a billion people sitting in the stands at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor to watch the Red Wings play the Maple Leafs.
I’ve been to a few of these Winter Classics. It doesn’t matter if the game is any good. It’s just so liberating to feel hockey framed in fresh air, watch grown men smile like kids, and see everyone deal with the whim and caprice of daylight, precipitation, wind, and whatever.
I am going to skate this afternoon. I have been doing this for a very long time. It won’t be outdoors, but that’s OK. It will be a joy just to be there, to be back doing what’s baked into my being a New Englander.
There will be frightened kids with ankles bowed, clinging desperately to the sideboards or their parents’ legs. There will be teenagers zipping in and out, aiming to impress girlfriends or boyfriends with quick dashes and sudden stops. At least one or two young girls will sport their sparkling figure skating outfits. One old-timer I know will scoot around in his leather Tacks, circa 1972. Christmas music will play. Someone will fall and bang an elbow. And before we leave, we will all pose for a group shot at center ice.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m already smiling.