December 12, 2008

Hockey Nights…

Category: News — Ira @ 7:04 pm


“…they are just grown-up kids who have learned
on the frozen creek or flooded corner lot that
hockey is the greatest thrill of all.”

—Lester Patrick

I don’t remember exactly when and how it started. Near as I can recall, my brothers and I were the founders of the hockey tradition in Aylmer. Which flared up under-ground and blazed briefly for a few short years in the early 1970s. And did not long survive our departure.

I don’t know which came first. Playing the game, then discovering the National Hockey League (NHL), or following the NHL through the newspapers George the Mailman gave us, then learning the game from that. Like the chicken or the egg. Which came first?

Whatever. We learned to skate when very young, on the two acre pond a few hundred yards east of the house, across from the little dry creek that ran through our barnyard. I was six years old when skates were unceremoniously strapped to my feet. I swayed and stumbled and skidded and fell on the ice a hundred times before finding my skating legs.

We learned with hockey skates, of course. Figure skates were for sissies. Everyone knew that. We scorned anyone who used them.

We played a rough form of primitive hockey. As the littlest boy, I had to tend the goal. Be the goalie. I was drafted by my older brothers. Didn’t have a choice. They placed me between the two boots that served as nets on our rink. Which wasn’t really a rink, just two solid acres of slick windswept ice.

It was cold. My brothers milled about and whacked a little black disc at me. It was very hard. Called a puck. I was supposed to stop it. Keep it from going between the two boots, which kept sliding around on the ice. I waved my little homemade goalie stick at the puck, and stopped it sometimes.

But it was fun. Even in the cold. Which wasn’t so bad, once you got used to it. We skated as often as we could. In the ensuing years we got better at hockey. Skilled, even. We used old two-by-fours scrounged from somewhere when our father wasn’t looking and made our first rink one winter. Thirty feet or so wide. Sixty or seventy feet long. We nailed a few boards together for the goals. No nets, but better than the boots.

We got better. Invited some of our neighborhood friends over sometimes to play with us. Became quite skilled skaters. Professionally sharpened our skates at the Canadian Tire store in Aylmer. Got real hockey sticks. No one taught us the game. We learned on our own.

We followed the NHL religiously. George the Mailman saw to it that we got a newspaper almost every day from the extras he carried in his car. The St. Thomas Times-Journal. We chose our favorite teams. Checked each day to see how they were doing in the standings. Craftily, of course, as Dad had a maddening tendency to pilfer and destroy the Sports section before we could get to it.

I chose the New York Rangers as my team. No particular reason. New York sounded like a fine name. A fine town. I idolized their players. Titus chose the Chicago Black Hawks. Steve the Toronto Maple Leafs. Three boys. Three teams. Plenty to debate and discuss. And boy, did we ever.

Those were the glory days of the NHL. When they had real men, who didn’t wear helmets, and goalies who were just developing protective face masks. Classic guys. Gordie Howe. Bobby Hull. Bobby Orr. Gerry Cheevers. Dave Keon. Brad Park. The Esposito brothers, Tony and Phil. Ed Giocomin of the Rangers, my goalie hero.

About then we got serious about playing on our homemade rink. We built real nets for the goals, using burlap sacks for the netting. A huge improvement, but the puck had an annoying habit of slipping through the seams, causing many heated arguments as to whether or not the shooter had scored. We bought hockey gloves. Shin pads. Elbow pads.

I developed as the primary goalie in the community. Had quite a reputation. I bought a glove and blocker, and a wire face mask. And shoulder pads. But I could afford only the regular shin guards, not the thick goalie pads I needed. The shin guards were thin, but better than nothing, which was what I had before. During winter months, my shins were always speckled with pulpy little soft purple blotches, from blocking slapshots with my legs. I wore the bruises proudly, as wounds of battle.

We developed strategies too. Instead of a tight knot of players swarming after the puck like a herd of thundering elephants, we created our own lines. Forward, Center, Defense. Stick handling, passing. I cannot stress enough that all this was learned with no encouragement, no coaching, and no real knowledge of the game, other than what we read, and the pictures we saw.

On our rare trips to town, we splurged on forbidden contraband. At Steen’s Cigar Store on the east end, we perused and purchased glossy hockey magazines. Snuck them home and into the house and hid them in our bedrooms, under the mattress. Devoured them cover to cover.

Somewhere about this time, my brother Steve got his first radio. He kept it hidden in the barn and started listening to the professional hockey games. From that, he learned some basic strategies.

He was by far the best player. The best Aylmer ever had. Which isn’t saying a lot, but it’s something. He could score about anytime he got a mind to. Always irritated me that I couldn’t stop him at the net. But I kept trying. Sometimes, to his surprise, and every-one else’s amazement, I made the save. Stopped his breakaway cold.

During the last two winters we lived there, 1974 and 1975, ice hockey in Aylmer reached its apex. Steve and Titus were young adults. I was a teenager. Our cousins, uncle Abner’s boys, and the Miller boys, David and Raymond, made up our little group of tough seasoned players. Sometimes Junior Eicher joined us. But not usually.

Usually the pond froze over by mid November. Not hard enough to skate on, but enough to shoot a puck across. And that’s what we did, after chores, before breakfast, one of us on each side of the pond, shooting the puck back and forth. Waiting eagerly for the deep freeze to come, so we could skate and play.

By December the ice was thick enough. We played about twice a week, always at our pond, because we made the best rink. Sometimes they planned the week night games on Sundays, sometimes furtive messages were passed along through school. Every-thing was informal. Under the radar. No sense in unduly alarming the church fathers, who frowned on all sporting events. Waste of time, they felt. So it was never an official youth gathering, just a few neighborhood boys getting together.

Around 7:30 or 8:00 of an evening they pulled in with their buggies, the Millers and our Wagler cousins. Got out in the crunching snow, put their horses in our barn. We all piled out to the pond, lugging our gear, skates and Coleman mantle lanterns. Each side of the rink was lined with four buckets placed upside down on the snow. We lit the lanterns and placed them on the buckets.

Our rinks were fine works of art, compared to our earlier primitive ones. Two-by-sixes lined both sides. Behind the net, and it was a real net, still homemade with wood frames, but with real chicken wire, we placed a four foot high backboard to stop flying pucks.

Without further ado, we chose sides, usually four or five players per team, and took to the ice. Those are some of my fondest sports memories. Loaded with my goalie gear, I huddled in my net, my private little kingdom, a force to be reckoned with. Every nerve alert. You scored on me, you accomplished something.

We tried to emulate the big leagues. Three timed periods of ten or fifteen minutes to a game. My little sister Rhoda served as timekeeper and also dropped the puck at face-offs.

Great shouts then, as the game began. Bodies flying here and there, as the lines surged back and forth across the ice. Checking, pushing, shoving, shouts, cheers. Clashing of sticks, the scuffing of skates on the snow-specked ice. The solid thunk of men and skates and sticks and puck hammering against the boards. The adrenalin of blocking shot after shot, breakaway after breakaway. The sinking feeling when the puck whipped past me into the net.

Sometimes tempers flared in the heat of battle. But we never allowed open fighting, and it never happened. Besides, the guy you fought might be your team mate next week. So we kept it cool. We had no refs, but policed ourselves.

Usually, at least once a night, somebody crashed into a lantern, knocking it onto the ice with a splintering sound as the glass globe shattered to smithereens. Time was called, the remaining lanterns on that side spaced evenly, then play resumed, as heated as before.

Sometimes the full moon hung white in the skies, and it was bitterly cold. The North-west winds swept over the ice and the crusted snow. Young, and full of boundless vigor, chilled to the bones, our toes turning blue and numb in our skates, still we played. And played and played.

On and on, until ten o’clock or so. Sweating, cold but exhilarated, we unlaced our skates and headed to the house for hot chocolate and cookies and conversation before everyone headed home. Until the next game.

Sadly, there are no photos. These events survive only in the memories of those who lived them.

By the winter of 1976, we moved to Bloomfield, Iowa, and the Aylmer hockey legends soon passed into oblivion. My brothers and I were the driving force, and the game simply could not survive without us.

We took it with us, though. Bloomfield was a land of opportunity. To teach a whole new crop of neophytes the joys of the game. We did just that. The Bloomfield youth took to it like ducks to water. We played fast and furious for a few good years. To the chagrin of more than one Bloomfield preacher. Something about the speed and violence of the game simply does not appeal to staid old Amish gray bearded leaders.

But the Bloomfield games never quite stacked up to the old Aylmer standards. Or maybe I just hated change. The old classics always remain the sweetest in memory.

The last time I visited Aylmer, in the late 1990s, I stopped by the old home place. Walked the haunts of my childhood. Naturally, everything had changed. Including the old pond.

It’s barely recognizable. The current occupants, for reasons known only to themselves, reshaped the pond. With bulldozers. It’s about half as big as it was back then. Even the two old tree stumps that protruded from the waters are gone. No remnants remain, no water-logged boards from our old rinks, no splinters from our wood-framed nets, no bits of chicken wire. But if one dug around in the muddy banks, I’d bet you’d find an old puck or two.

I haven’t played in decades. Haven’t skated in years. But if I had a time machine, I would return. Back to those Aylmer glory days. For one last game.

It’s been kind of a bummer week. Haven’t slept well. Partly because of my friends, Paul and Anne Marie and what they’re facing. Partly because of other issues. The weather hasn’t helped. Cold drizzly rain the last two 2-1/2 days. It’s enough to depress a guy.

I stopped at Paul and Anne Marie’s last night after the gym. They fed me as usual. A few other close friends were there as well. We sat around and ate and talked and laughed, in the face of the looming specter of her surgery.

Her surgery was this morning at 11 o’clock. On shedule and everything went quite well. I spoke with Paul at 4 this afternoon. She was recuperating in ICU, still groggy. Paul said the tumor was almost exactly the same size and place as last time. Anne Marie will be allowed to go home as soon as she leaves the ICU, hopefully as soon as this Sunday.



  1. Ira, I have never appreciated hockey, let alone played it as your family did. However, your description of hockey in your youth stirred memories in me towards sports that I played and watched in my youth and beyond. Thank you for a stirring description of youthful sporting times that reminds me of that time more than 30 years in the past.

    Comment by Mark Hersch — December 12, 2008 @ 8:08 pm

  2. If we could go back, how would it be?

    My heart goes out to you all with the surgery and all. We just got back Tues. from attending Mary Hershberger’s funeral (in Arthur, IL). She died from annerisym of the heart. She was a true friend to many, including us. Folks came from every corner of the United States to pay their last respects and yes, to weep together. She was a praying godly woman, loved by all.

    Remember how the Bloomfield boys had figure skates until we moved there? Suddenly everyone had hockey skates. Lester was talking about the good old Bloomfield hockey games the other evening.

    Comment by Rachel — December 12, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

  3. I couldn’t believe how fast those Wagler boys could skate, especially the oldest of the three!!!

    Comment by Wilma Wagler — December 12, 2008 @ 9:11 pm

  4. That was an interesting article. I have played hockey with your brother Steve, several times, the last time probably 6 years ago and he was still very good. I remember my dad Rudy talking about when you guys introduced hockey to Bloomfield. You must have started something because when we moved to Montana in ’94, we built the first rink on the West Kootenai. Many a Sunday afternoon Amish, Mennonites and English neighbor kids filled the pond.

    In 1995 we moved to Brookfield, MO and everyone had figure skates and hockey wasn’t played at all. But since the winter of ’96 we built a hockey rink with 2 x 6s every year and have had countless hockey games and a lot of fun memories. Often we had enough people for 3 teams and I am looking forward to this year! Some of the figure skating kids turned out to be great hockey players, so thanks for introducing the sport to our Dad. Hopefully we would still have found it on our own, but who knows!

    Comment by Matt Yutzy — December 12, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

  5. This is a wonderful account, Ira. You open a world to this California boy that I truly never knew existed with a keen insight into the human spirit and a compelling narrative style. You should put your essays about growing up together in a book. You are ready. It would be well read. Merry Christmas, friend.


    Comment by Kent Hansen — December 12, 2008 @ 10:50 pm

  6. Ira, your essays about home and childhood always flood me with nostalgia. I recall the winters of my small childhood community, and the pond the Amish had at the end of our block (where the “back road” started). But you do not elicit mere nostalgia, but touch living human heartstrings and something of the spirit. Bless you.

    Here’s a good Christmas essay I think you (and some readers) would enjoy:
    “Neither Paul nor any of the other early Christians had any particular interest in social reform or political revolution. Their dedication was spiritual; yet, at the core of Christian faith is the most revolutionary idea ever conceived: that individual man is infinitely important…. The teachings of Jesus did not imply mass organization and standardization of people, or worldwide uniformity, or a universal leveling of mankind. They implied the opposite. … Having been reared and educated in the intellectual atmosphere of the 20th century…many church leaders seem never to have learned that the Gospel of Jesus is spiritual.”
    –THE HOPE OF THE WORLD by Dan Smoot

    Comment by LeRoy Whitman — December 15, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

  7. I remember you guys playing in the winter in Bloomfield and the proud “battle” wound you carry from that one frosty afternoon. Happy Holidays……

    Comment by Chuckie Leonard — December 19, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

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