Pond hockey in Michigan

If you live in a part of the world where it’s cold enough for long stretches of time to freeze a large amount of water and if you have a passion for the sport of hockey, then you’ve probably been on and/or seen someone’s homemade ice rink.

There comes a time in these freezing cold months when you’re ready to pack up your bags at a moment’s notice and head down south just to escape the below-32F temperatures that last for weeks at a time. Even your love for hockey can’t keep you cooped up inside any longer. You want fresh air that doesn’t sting your lungs every time you take a breath.It’s at this point in the winter when I rely solely on the fact that the sub-zero temperatures and mounds upon mounds of snow mean it’s proper hockey-playing weather.

Just imagine:

You’re bundled up: pants, maybe some snow pants on top to break the wind, several pairs of socks for added insulation, a sweater, coat, scarf wrapped up as high on your face as possible, gloves on your hands (with optional mittens over those), and a toque/hat on your head. All of this protection, but the bitter winter wind still cuts through you, your breath rising up in front of you in a thick fog. It leaves you wondering why you’re out in this weather at all.

Then someone behind you yells, “Hey! Stop staring at the stupid trees and keep looking for the puck!”

The snow, the negative windchill, the frozen outdoors all around – all of this is forgotten as you step back onto that slab of ice and hear the familiar sound of skates and sticks against the frozen water and pucks hitting wooden boards and goal posts. After a while, you find yourself shedding articles of clothing: first, the scarf goes, then maybe one of the pairs of gloves, and then maybe you’ll play without a coat for a few minutes, just to cool off.

This is the epitome of pond hockey.

Every year for as long as I can remember, my next door neighbors have set up an ice rink in their backyard. The first year they did it, Ray, the dad, told my brothers and I to go and buy some ice skates. I was never taught how to skate properly; I simply stepped onto the ice and pretended I had roller blades on. And I skate better with a hockey stick in my hands.

All three of the kids next door play hockey (as does the mom occasionally) and Ray coaches. Honestly, it was only a matter of time before I got sucked into the sport.

The ice rink is set up in the back portion of their backyard. It’s not as flashy as some, like Chris Osgood‘s rink, but it’s reliable and we can play hockey on it. The construction takes a bit of time. I always say that winter’s approaching when I can come home from school and see Ray pounding wooden stakes into the ground to mark where the boards will be. Usually by Thanksgiving or so, it’s flooded. If we’re lucky, we can skate by the first or second week of December.

The rink itself is about 45 feet long and 38 feet wide, several feet shorter than years passed. The boards are wood and have slowly been replaced over the years (last year, they were half-eaten by carpenter ants. That was a sad discovery). With a well in the backyard solely to fill up the rink, the near-square can be flooded within two days or so.

Ray has two flood lights on either end of the rink behind the nets and always strings a long line of six or seven light bulbs over the center of it. With pine trees sheltering the houses behind it from being blinded by the light (not to mention keeping the rink nice and shady on the mid-thirty degrees days), it makes playing undisturbed until the wee hours of the morning much easier.

The nets behind the ends of the rink are a new addition as of a few years ago. I can’t tell you how many pucks the six of us have lost due to tipped shots, uncontrolled slapshots, and just pure frustration and needing to throw something. It still happens that we’ll stumble upon pucks way off in my backyard in April, but the nets do tend to catch some wicked shots and save us from digging through the snow.

Heavy snowfall is always fun. Shoveling the ice rink is a pain, but we all try to pile it onto the far side of the ice rink. You see, we play no-check hockey except for the “Wall of Check” [picture here]. The Wall of Check is the only section of the ice where it is legal to check because the gigantic pile of snow protects us from getting hurt (for the most part).

The ice rink is a little slice of heaven in a frozen terrain.

I told you earlier that I’ve never taken lessons on how to skate. I have never played organized hockey, either. I have only experienced street hockey with the standard six players: my two brothers (Matt and Mike), the three neighbor kids (Dave, Ben, and Kelsey), and me.

I’m probably not the first person to tell you that playing hockey against kids who play it on an organized sports team is frustrating when you only play it recreationally three months out of the year. It also sucks playing against your two older brothers. Thankfully, I never had to play much against Dave and Ben since I’m usually on their team; those kids have some damn good moves.

Back when all six of us were still growing up, we used to take this pond hockey-playing seriously. We had a box that would sit on the bench with a pad of paper and a pencil so we could keep track of goals and assists. On the weekend of the NHL all-star game, we would have our own skills competitions and try to shoot pucks into milk crates, hit paper plates in the corners of the nets, play three-on-three, have shootout attempts, skate through cones, and time how fast we could skate around the rink.

But then things got carried away. The scores of games were taken too seriously. Many hockey sticks were broken over crossbars due to anger at stupid plays or bad goals. Finally, the box disappeared and the score-keeping remained in our heads and our play became lighthearted again.

To be able to play pond hockey and partake in the sport gives you an entirely different view of the game itself. You begin to appreciate what these players do; they make it look so easy, but it’s not. You play out on an ice rink for ten minutes and it’s hard to imagine doing that every other night for sixty minutes, staying sharp, getting quality chances, and winning games.

While members of our hockey club have grown up and moved away or gone off to college, our love for the sport and our passion for playing remains the same. When they come back to visit, we always make time to play out on the ice. Friends are invited as well. The ice rink brings us closer as friends and as a community. It gives us something to bond over.

But most importantly, it keeps us sane in the long winter months when the rest of civilization is cooped up inside to stay out of the freezing cold.

As a bonus, on December 23, I brought my camera out onto the ice rink and shot some videos of us playing. I’d like to thank my dad for manning the camera for some of this. The video starts off with the seven of us playing Posts, followed by some shootout attempts, shoveling the ice, another game of Posts, more shootout attempts (and a recreation of Linus Omark‘s shootout attempt), my crappy slapshot, and a bonus ending of a fight that definitely wasn’t staged.

Players featured in this video: Matt, Mike, Kelsey, Dave, two of our friends – J.J. and Elan, and me (I’m in the pink pants). Unfortunately, Ben could not be present because he had an actual hockey game to play in.

Pond Hockey in Michigan

Christina Roberts
NHLHS Detroit Red Wings Correspondent
Twitter: @franzenmuth
Email: christina.roberts@nhlhotstove.com