Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On thin ice...

I've never been a person who cared much about the weather. Seldom do I look at a weather forecast other than to figure out what to wear that day. Rarer still do I publicly complain about the weather. Since there's nothing I can do to change it, why bother. The big exception is as a photographer, when I need to shoot something on a given day and depend on the weather. I say a little prayer to the photography gods (yes they're up there somewhere), and curse them when they don't come through.

Today however, I find myself caring deeply about the weather. In the last week I've been looking at the five day forecasts, checking the current temperature hourly on the computer, most of all fretting because the temperature in the next few days promises for the first time since Christmas to inch above freezing.

Why am I gloomy about something that practically every sensible person in the city is thoroughly psyched about? Because I have rekindled my passion about ice hockey, not watching it, that never went away, but playing it. And the few places around town where you can simply put on a pair of skates and take a stick and a puck to the ice, will be reduced to mush.

I know there are plenty of venues around town to play the game. You can sign up for leagues at all skill levels at the numerous skating rinks around town. But that involves, time, money, and above all commitment, three things that I have very little of these days. There's also rat hockey, loosely organized pick up games which are fun but you still need the full compliment of gear and you never know who'll show up, mostly people way better than me no doubt.

What I'm talking about is heading to a park where they have flooded a half acre or so of property, and just tool around without all the fuss that accompanies organized hockey. Wonderful players show up at these places too, usually kids who are honing their skills, refining their moves, or just hanging out. I remember doing just that as a kid. I lived across the street form a park where they flooded the tennis courts every winter. One court was reserved for hockey, the other for figure skaters. It was truly heaven. I'd skate around or hours, play (badly) in some pick up games, then continue to skate long after everyone left and the lights had been turned out trying to learn the moves I saw my heroes on the Blackhawks do on TV and at the Stadium. The most illusive of all was the hockey stop, something that I struggle with to this day. But I never skated better, faster or with more confidence than after everyone had left and the lights were turned off.

This is something you simply cannot do at a skating rink with its rules and regulations, the harshest of which is, no hockey! Wonderful as they are, the skating rinks built in several of the parks throughout the city, enforce these rules as strictly as the indoor rinks. For good reason I suppose. Unfortunately these rinks with the cooling coils beneath the ice that ensure ice well above freezing, and Zamboni machines that resurface the ice, have replaced the flooded fields where so many Chicagoans learned to play hockey, at their own pace. Going back even farther, back to my long lost youth in the 60s, the big parks with lagoons all allowed people to skate on the frozen water, which always seemed to be ice for at least two consecutive months in the winter. I remember hundreds of people at a time skating on the frozen lagoon at Humboldt Park, where my father taught me how to skate and play hockey. Then it all stopped, liability issues no doubt. Eventually the winter weather became more unpredictable, we still had bouts of extreme cold, but not the sustained freeze that I remember as a child.

In short, these days in Chicago anyway, it's harder to go somewhere to play hockey at a moment's notice.

I should mention that this whole hockey craze began last month when my son discovered that he loved skating after all. Before, he was afraid to fall and became easily discouraged. Flash forward a few years, we buy him a pair of skates, took him to a skating party, and shazam, he fell in love instantly. Now he is the first kid hanging on the door to charge the ice as soon as the Zamboni finishes its work.

I remembered a park in Lincolnwood, not too far from where we live, that used to flood a field in the winter. Sure enough, they still do and last weekend I bought my boy a stick and we took to that ice like there was no tomorrow.

We did it again this evening. There were some teenage boys smoking and hanging out. Eventually they took to the ice and were fantastic players. They also turned out to be really good guys and invited us to shoot into the portable goal net they brought. Eventually they left and took their net with them. We had the whole ice to ourselves. As my boy learned his new moves, I worked on my hockey stop and all the things that give me fits. You may not believe it but I have never skated better than tonight. And though my legs and joints are killing me now, and tomorrow I probably will have a distinct limp that everyone will comment on, I have never felt so alive.

Neither of us wanted to come home. If it hadn't been a school night, we'd probably still be out there.

Does life get any better than that?

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