On the outside edge
Sunday, I took the hockey sticks and the shovel out of the back of the pick-up. It was my birthday, the day when I take down the outdoor Christmas lights and declare that winter is over, even though the equinox is still 10 days off and the landscape is still forbiddingly barren. But, just two days earlier, the temperature was in the single digits when I got up. The bitter cold last week had iced over the ponds again. Only trouble was, the cold came with a nasty blast of northwest wind, which kept the larger ponds open, and made for a rough surface on small ponds that froze over early in the week.
But what could I expect, reasonably? It was a week into March, the sun was up for eleven-plus hours, and it packed a punch unmatched since early October.
So, skating? Pond hockey? Only for true dreamers, which, when it comes to a skate or maybe some shinny on Uncle Seth’s or Duarte’s or even Squibnocket, I am. And have been, ever since I started playing hockey around 1960, and Jean Beliveau was my first hero who wasn’t a baseball player.
Ten years later, when winters here were truly dead, and before the Arena turned the Island into a hockey hotbed, I’d scout out skating feverishly every time the temp dipped into the teens for a day or two. First, I’d check ponds along the road, of course, and then head into the woods, following clues I’d gleaned from a moldy roll of old Coast and Geodetic Survey maps. It was a solo hunt, not like the current network of surfers who use cell phones to pass the word about the size of the swell off Nomans or how the break’s setting up at Bell’s. But I loved it, and what the heck, I had too much time on my hands and too much passion for banging a puck around on a pond somewhere.
Some Sundays, enough people would gather on Uncle Seth’s for a little four-on-four between two pairs of boots, which served as goals. Compared to the local talent — eager kids who couldn’t skate much and a few diehard adults, like David Flanders, who teetered ominously on skates, and Paul Henry Mayhew, who’d get up on the toe picks of his black figure skates and run across the ice in a shower of ice chips — I was positively Orr-like. I could stick-handle around and between people at will, but the real fun was putting the puck on a wobbly skater’s stick at just the right spot for him to slide it between the boots. The grins and whoops were what made it for me. One time, I remember, we actually kept score, and as the dark came down we declared: next goal wins. I passed the puck to one of the kids who slid it over to David who immediately passed it back to me, saying, "Here you go, Cap, just take it right through the fleet and finish this off.” I did as I was bid.
These days, my contact for a pick-up game is Danny Merry, a pal of my son Sam’s. Danny is always up for a game, and with the flip of a phone, he can gather eight or ten skaters pondside in 20 minutes. Like me, they must keep skates and sticks in their vehicles during January and February. Also like me, most of them are former high school hockey players — only I’m some 45 years former — who won’t ever forget the thrill of skimming along full-tilt and ramming a wrister home after snagging a seeing-eye pass through a scatter of sticks and skates.
Or, I’ll hear from a distinguished contemporary like, let’s say, Nat Benjamin, who called while I was away in early February and left a message: "I hear there’s ice on Duarte’s. I’m heading up this afternoon; hope to see you there.” A pause. "And keep your stick on the ice.” That is, not tangled in his skates or rapping at his shins. Are all old hockey players wise guys, or just those that I know?
Okay, a gentlemanly skate it was to be, as befits our advanced station, with an implicit nod to the orthopedic and osteopathic — maybe even orthodontic — consequences of catching a blade in a crack and going down hard. Sounds good, but when a hockey player wraps his hands around his stick and gets a burst of speed on, watch out.
Or, maybe a game springs up by accident, like one I spotted on Uncle Seth’s in mid-February. Near the end of a hard hour-long skate, I passed by a dad-like type with three or four kids in the 10- to 12-year-old range. Under the ski hat and the dark glasses, I recognized Andrew Moore, just about when he realized who I was. We stopped to chat for a minute, then I pushed off on the way to a massage — the cap on a perfect late afternoon. Just then, Andrew’s son Gordon skated up, and said, "Hey, you want to play?” As in, "this is so much fun, and another guy would even make it better...so, come on.”
I told him I’d love to, but I had to get going. Bad choice, I realized half a mile down the road. I mean, slapping a puck around with kids that are having that much fun — outside under a crisp late-afternoon sky that was coloring up beautifully in the west — what’s better?
So, no wonder I was so desperate by the end of last week. The ice at Parsonage Pond was too rough, Duarte’s not thick enough, and there was barely a skim on Uncle Seth’s. But it had been bitter — 6 degrees at 6 am on Friday: there had to be ice, damn it. My sleeve card was No-Bottom Pond, between the church and Uncle Seth’s on Lambert’s Cove Road. Just before sundown on Friday, I gave it a whirl.
I pulled my truck off the road, beat through some puckerbrush to the pondshore and laced ’em up. First stride, I pushed off into an incredibly smooth, quiet glide. It felt perfect. I pushed hard into a few strides, then turned tight to come back where I started. Alone, I wasn’t about to venture out into the middle of the pond. Especially not after the crack I heard at my heels. I turned back toward shore, but the ice held. So I tried it again, and again, for five minutes, maybe, just long enough to feel a burn in my thighs, to gulp cold air deep into my lungs, and to remember that I could still count on the outside edge of my inside skate as I drove out of a tight turn.