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Hockey Fever

Hockey Fever
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I like almost everything about pond hockey: the potluck quality of the players (young and old, male and female), the 12-on-12 games that last all afternoon, the universally acknowledged rules (goals marked by winter boots a hockey-stick length apart) and rituals (teams sorted by sticks gathered and tossed into two random piles, to be collected by their owners, now teammates).

I like the serendipity of finding a game in progress, or seeing who shows up. But I especially like the nature of it: the clear air and bracing cold, the wintry backdrop, the unpredictability. There’s nothing like discovering the rare gift of black ice–ice so smooth that you can fling a puck 100 yards without even trying, ice so transparent that it continually scares and thrills you, because it seems to have no thickness at all. I’m tempted to say that’s the way hockey was meant to be played.

I live now in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, in a different hockey culture from the one I grew up in. I’ve heard about some regular outdoor games on private ponds. And I’ve gotten in on some good hockey at Occom Pond in Hanover, New Hampshire, where Dartmouth workers use snowplows and blowers to maintain the ice. I’ve played there alongside college students in Carhartts and graybeards in wool pants. But the real game here is indoors.

As in other hockey-mad pockets around New England, kids start playing organized hockey at age 4 or 5. Their parents commit to intense seasons that stretch from October into April, drive hundreds of miles to away games, spend hundreds of dollars on equipment and ice time, and more for special sessions and camps that run all summer. Everything is organized and scheduled by adults, and almost everything about it is competitive. Driving around the lakes in the area, I hardly ever see anyone skating, and I sense that something is being lost: something that comes from a community connecting with the season, from kids being kids and the purity of fun for fun’s sake.

I’ve discovered another part of the culture, though, and I sense what might be gained. Adult hockey flourishes here, too–indoors in men’s and women’s leagues, co-ed leagues, “open-stick” hours invisible to the outside world at 6 a.m., at lunchtime, at 11 o’clock at night. I edged into that world a few years ago, when a friend suggested that I join a team. I showed up for a late-night game at Dartmouth’s Thompson Arena in sweat pants and a borrowed helmet, and knew immediately that I was out of my league.

On the ponds, I’d really been dubbing around. The guys on this immaculate sheet of ice–most of them former high school players and even some college players–were all products of serious hockey programs. They were faster and more instinctive on skates than I could ever hope to be, and their hockey skills seemed to belong to a different sport altogether.

I sucked wind in short shifts for an hour–I’d never felt so out of breath playing pond hockey (or anything else), and never so humiliated. And yet I have to say: In that artificially cold air and fluorescent light, gliding out onto Zamboni-smooth ice for the first time was a thrill, flipping a pass off real boards was a thrill, snapping a puck at a real goalie in front of a real net was a thrill, and they’re thrilling still.

The next year I joined a learn-to-play group, indoors, in stale air, and couldn’t get enough. I started doing backward crossovers, was introduced to strategy and positioning, got a taste of the grace that comes from timing and teamwork. The game became more fun the higher I slid up the learning curve, and I started looking forward to skating each week with the same urgency that I used feel chasing black ice. My playing has become tinged with wistfulness for how good I might have been, what fun I might have had, and it makes me wonder.

I’ve got a 5-year-old son who likes to skate and is showing a talent for it …

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