I didn’t see my first actual hockey game until I was 50 years old, but that didn’t stop me from being a huge fan of the sport back from the time I was in grade school.
From as early as I can remember, I’ve read the sports pages of the Daily Republic religiously. In later grade school, I began reading Sports Illustrated and Sport magazine. They carried some hockey stories, and the Daily Republic had National Hockey League scores. I quickly became a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. They had a roster of superstars -Maurice “Rocket’’ Richard, Bernie “Boom Boom’’ Geoffrion and goalie Jacques Plante.
Growing up in Chamberlain, I had a pair of ice skates, sure. Every kid did. My friends and I wore what we called hockey skates. They were about the size of high-top Keds, leather with hardened toes and sturdy blades. Ours were never sharp. We slid around the ice, but we dreamed big. Girls in those days wore white lace-up boots with low heels and blades that had sharp teeth cut into the front edge. In the 1950s, girls wouldn’t be caught wearing anything but figure skates, and boys all had to have hockey skates. I never knew a kid in school who had actually seen a hockey match.
The city created an ice skating rink in the bottom of a gulch south of the Catholic Church. They found an old shack somewhere and moved it down the hill to the edge of the rink. We used that shack to change from shoes or boots into skates and to take breaks when it got cold out on the ice. Everybody called it a warming shack, even though it was unheated. I suppose it cut the wind that swept through the gulch on blustery days.
The first kids on the ice each day used a big push broom and a shovel to clear off drifted snow. The ice was never actually smooth, but it beat conditions of the ice on stock ponds out in the country, and it usually was less bumpy than the ice on the river, which always had ridges and knobs. A guy had to pay close attention on the river or the ponds. Cracks in the ice would grab a skate blade and send you flying, sometimes causing you to twist an ankle or bruise a wrist or elbow. During my junior year in high school, the basketball coach told us just before Christmas break that he didn’t want to find out any of his varsity players had been ice skating during the vacation. Somehow, even though it was a small town, he never found out.
In 1994 the newspaper sent me to Albany, New York, for a week of work. There I saw my first live hockey match. The Albany River Rats really impressed me. They had a guy in goal fresh from the Olympic team, a boisterous crowd and the smoothest ice I’d ever seen. Man, did I wish I could have skated on that kind of ice back in the day.
Several years after my Albany experience, our younger son enrolled in grad school at the University of North Dakota. He wangled some early-season tickets, and we drove up to see UND play and to experience the Ralph Engelstad Arena. My goodness. Nothing could have prepared me for that. Talk about good ice and a boisterous crowd. Good players, too. Zach Parise, a star with the Minnesota Wild, was playing for UND then. Imagine seeing him in person, then following his career to, yup, the Albany River Rats before he joined the New Jersey Devils.
We managed at least one hockey weekend every year our son was in grad school. We got to see Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie play. When Toews left UND for the Chicago Blackhawks, I’m afraid I switched my NHL allegiance from the Canadiens. I’ve followed Chicago ever since, good times and bad.
As I write this, I see the sun on the river ice out my office window. The ice looks a bit bumpy, but a guy with a set of second-hand hockey skates could have himself quite an afternoon out there.