Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s
Christmas came and went with astonishing speed, as it does every year, leaving behind a jumble of packages and boxes, ripped paper and the spectre of New Year’s bills.
By the time Boxing Day rolled around, we all needed a break from the festive cheer, so the wife trooped us outside into the backyard for a game of hockey.
Two years ago, during a consistent stretch of frigid weather during February, we iced the backyard and fashioned ourselves a rather ragged rink for about three weeks, before the first stirrings of Spring took it away. Last year, the weather was too unreliable to even consider undertaking such a task.
As for this Winter, no-one seems sure how the season will unfold. Here in Toronto, we got hit with three major snowstorms in the ten days before Christmas, which not only guaranteed a Bing Crosby Yuletide, but also resuscitated the wife’s romantic notion of having a backyard rink. The trouble is, the forecast for Saturday, December 27th was for rain and more rain, which gave us a window of only one day to prepare, flood, freeze and enjoy our own Winter Classic.
Time for Plan B.
Around 2 pm that afternoon, the whole crew moved into the snow-covered backyard, shovels-in-hand, and proceeded to clear a sizeable area, large enough for our regulation-sized net and three hockey players. The wife supervised the work, assigning herself to the snow pick, while I cleared the debris. The four-year-old quickly lost interest in the proceedings, and instead practised his Bill Barber dives into the nearest snowbank.
After about a half-hour, we had the semblance of a backyard rink…minus the ice. The only effective way to pat down the surface of snow into a consistent packed base was to tread on it. The four-year-old and I began a game of keep away, and I’m not embarrassed to say I kicked his ass!
Yes, I know, how sad is that? A grown man in his mid-forties bragging about outplaying his four-year-old son. But c’mon, Father Time was sitting on the snow-covered picnic table, taking notes. I know my window for channeling my inner Rick Nash, going around some pylon defenceman, is very narrow. With each passing season, the pylon will grow and gain more confidence. Sooner than I think, we will have switched roles. Heck, he’s already got a better shot than I had at that age, or when I was eight.
Okay, it’s still sad. And the boy let it be known he didn’t appreciate it, either. He enlisted his mother, and suddenly my puck handling skills were put to the test. I still ruled! Everyone knows girls can’t play hockey. Right? Right?
The wife would exact her hockey revenge later.
As for the puck, we were using one of those bright orange street hockey jobbies that I picked up from Canadian Tire for a buck each. Loaded up on about a dozen two years ago, and after banging a bunch of them off the goalpost during that deep freeze, we only have a couple left. My wrist shot will never strike fear into the heart of any goaltender, still it was rather satisfying to watch the puck explode into two pieces after rattling it off the crossbar, allowing me to pretend I was some backyard Kent Nilsson.
After about twenty minutes of action, the snow surface under our feet was finely packed down, in perfect condition for the wife and I to later lay down the first layer of water from the trusty old garden hose. But the weather forecast hadn’t changed. Today it was a perfect late December day. Tomorrow, it would look like March 29th. There would be no need to use the hose.
But that was all in the future; at the moment, the three of us were immersed in a serious game of shinny. One game pitted me against the wife and child. The objective was to see who could score on the unguarded net. Sounds easy, but you’d be surprised how difficult that can be when one has to navigate two hostile bodies, a finite amount of space, and an unpredictable playing surface.
At one point, the wife had possession of the puck about halfway towards the net, and my only recourse was to bodycheck her into the snowbank, tie up her stick with mine, and then extract the puck with my boot. This was going rather well until the four-year-old saw that his teammate, his Mommy, was in need of help.
With all the speed he could muster, he slammed into me, which resulted in me losing the puck, and the little guy falling to the ground.
Suddenly, we snapped back to being concerned parents. As we went to help him up, he brushed away any helping hand, and picking himself up off-the-ground, muttering something to the effect that I had knocked him to the ice. If there had been a referee on duty, no doubt the kid would have made his way over to him, petitioning for a penalty. And he may have been right; maybe I did knock him down. How sad is that?
Then again, if one adheres to The Gospel According To Bobby Clarke, I was innocent. The four-year-old entered the scrum, and got what was coming his way. His mission was accomplished; I lost possession of the puck.
The boy showed that everything was alright by dropping his plastic stick, and his winter gloves, and charging at me, gleefully shouting out “Hockey Fight”. The fight was a draw; he got in a few good left hooks, while I managed to sneak in a noogie before the wife separated the combatants. I’m not a big fan of hockey fights, nor do I let the kid watch The Loud Man, as he calls Don Cherry. Somehow, he just knows that hockey guys drop the gloves every so often. Apparently, a four-year-old understands The Code. Make of that what you will.
The sun was beginning to drop low on the horizon, and thoughts turned to supper and hot chocolate. But first, time for Showdown. Mano-a-mano, or, in this case, Mano-a-Womano.
I went to the mudroom and retrieved my old Mike Richter goaltender stick. Last used it on-ice as a pickup goaltender way back in June of 1995. Lovingly taped it to perfection, and then took to the ice on that steamy late Spring evening. Which meant that my glasses steamed up terribly, which meant I battled to stop even the most rudimentary shot, which led to the spectacle of me violently chucking my goaltending equipment, piece-by-piece, into the corner, accompanied by every swear word I ever learned in the playground during grade school.
Since that day, I haven’t played ice hockey. Do I miss it? Sometimes very much. Then again, after a while, I grew tired of fighting over a black piece of rubber. And fighting was the word; often, the action would grow far too heated for a friendly pickup game, and the fun would be drained out it. This even happened during our weekly Sunday morning ball hockey game, which I used to live for. A person can only take so much testosterone-fueled macho crap before he’s had his fill.
I used to marvel that most of my friends in Ottawa stopped playing hockey during their mid-20′s. A couple of these guys were very good, having played Junior “B” hockey, and when we’d organize a pickup game, they looked like Bobby Orr and Mike Modano out there, cutting through the rest of us scrubs.
Why weren’t they playing in a recreational league? One friend explained that, while he missed the competition, what he didn’t miss were the guys who came straight from work, loaded up on beer, and then took to the ice in an effort to work out whatever frustrations they were experiencing with the wife or the boss. It wasn’t worth the chippiness and the petty violence. They’d much rather slum it with wannabee’s such as myself.
The trouble was, soon they grew bored by the lack of competition, and invited a few acquaintances who were also pretty flashy on a pair of skates. Within weeks, the ringers began to crowd out the ankle-skaters. While the level of play rose accordingly, the original purpose of getting all the guys together to have some fun soon was forgotten. And before you knew it, many of the guys stopped showing up. In my experience, this dynamic happens every time, another reason I don’t play ice hockey anymore.
These days, my hockey playing is reserved for when the two older neighborhood boys knock on our door, and invite the four-year-old and I to play street hockey. The kid puts on his Pavel Bure Rangers’ jersey and I usually slip on my Canucks’ sweater, though this Christmas the wife got me a very nice Washington Capitals road jersey circa 1985, so I can now channel my inner Pat Riggin.
Which is another way of saying, I’m terribly out-of-shape; most my exercise these days consisting of running for the bus in an effort not to be late for The War Room.
Which brings us back to Backyard Showdown, Husband vs. Wife. Me in net, the wife with her Sidney Crosby yellow stick. Three shots. Winner gets bragging rights.
Sometimes I’ll throw on the old goaltending equipment, in part because the kid loves it, but also because I love it. Today, no such protection, not even a jock.
First shot, the wife unveils her world-famous move…stand about fifteen in front of the net, and hack at the orange puck, missing it completely the first time, which sends me into a twisted, body-protecting position, which frees up a good portion of the net. She then reloads, takes a second swipe at the puck, and sends it towards my exposed shins.
I stop the first stop with my right leg, the brighly coloured orange frozen plastic puck feeling like a shot from Bobby Hull. Regardless, I stopped it. One for the good guys.
Second shot, the wife follows the same game plan. She whiffs on the first attempt, which again sends me into a spasm of body protecting motions, which leaves most of the net uncovered, which allows her to deposit the puck into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. One for the bad guys, err, girls.
Next shot would determine everything. If there had been a crowd watching, they would have been on their feet, particularly since all of our lawn furniture was buried beneath the snow.
I clenched my teeth, gathered up my Mike Richter goaltender stick, and vowed to not flinch this time, summoning up the courage of yesteryear, when getting hit with a puck or an orange street hockey ball was a badge of honour. This time, I would be ready. Thou Shalt Not Pass.
At this moment, the four-year-old, having had enough of this middle-age drama, enthusiastically reinserts himself back into the action, steals the puck and sends it sailing towards my unprotected shins; this time the puck looked like a Dennis Hull slapshot.
Luckily for me, it skittered wide left, and it was time for hot chocolate. The Showdown grudge match would have to wait until tomorrow.
Correct that; it would have to wait until the next extended cold snap and snowstorm. Turns out the weather watchers were right. It rained all day Saturday, and the next. By Sunday afternoon, it would have been more appropriate to play football in the backyard. The leaves I never got around to raking were exposed, mocking me from beyond the grave.
Our hockey net looks out-of-place on this muddy field, where once it was the crowning glory on a modest backyard hockey “rink”.
The three of us stared out the back window, a little sad at how things turned out, but very grateful we went outside on Boxing Day. Maybe it was the first in what would become a family tradition.
- Mick Kern
Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s