Having chauffeured the Boy and the Devil all over the province for the past ten years, I thought I had seen almost all of the rinks there are to see, particularly those within 100 kms of where we live, and yet somehow in the first few weeks of this season I have been in three arenas I’ve never visited before. I really enjoy walking into the different barns, new or old, and getting a sense of the atmosphere and history of the building. You can see the history on the walls, in the rafters or prominently displayed in cases in the lobby. Every rink has a local hockey hero or fabled team who brought home the hardware. Many pay tribute to sons, brothers, daughters and sisters lost, but publicly memorialized. Each building has its own unique character and story to tell.
New rinks like a couple in our hometown have all the modern amenities; big dressing rooms, working hot showers, stick racks, relatively comfortable seating, computerized scoreboards, sound systems and standardized safety features. Most of these ice pads are built as part of larger community centres complete with gymnasiums, pools, walking tracks, fitness centres and in some, extremely civilized cases, full-blown sports bars overlooking or adjacent to the action. I can think of at least six facilities that I’ve been to over the last couple of years that have anywhere from four to six ice pads and the aforementioned bar for spectators. These are full entertainment facilities that host weekend long tournaments where visitors are presented with more than just the hockey they’ve come to watch as well as convenient between game options. New facilities certainly do aim to meet the varied wants and needs of their patrons.
But, in my humble (if not slightly nostalgic) opinion, none of the fancy new rinks hold a candle to the character and ambiance of many of the old arenas we’ve visited over the years. I was reminded of this fact just this past weekend when the Devil played in a relatively old city rink where a couple of the her teammates father’s had played as kids. They were both able to recall, in detail, specific games and plays that had occurred over 25 years ago. They could still picture how a hockey puck would react to the boards or could hear the sound of skates cutting circles in the rock hard ice. They remembered playing with old so-and-so who had a cup of coffee in the NHL. Ahh, those were the days.
Older rinks always seem to have the hardest, quickest ice that the newer facilities typically aren’t able to duplicate due to apparently overarching need to accommodate the warmth demands of spectators. As a coach and rec hockey player I have been on some ice surfaces where water wings and flippers were required equipment.
Having grown up and played on a few outdoor rinks in north eastern Manitoba, I must admit I’m partial to watching hockey games in sub-zero conditions. There are more that a few arenas we’ve been to, including one in our hometown, that certainly accommodates that preference; rinks that require extra gloves or touques under helmets. Ice surfaces that leave your toes stinging in remembrance half an hour after you’ve left the building. Those outdoor Manitoba rinks caused tears of pain to flow on the drive home for up to an hour later.
Older rinks also each have their idiosyncrasies that leave you wondering how the game and its players must have differed back in the day. One old rink we’ve visited had the front row spectator seats pretty much level with the boards. While watching one of the Boy’s games at this rink, I had the brief inclination to reach over and pull him back on side when I noticed he had crossed the blue line without the puck. This same arena had the narrowest hallways that led to the smallest dressing rooms which made me imagine this arena had originally been built for a league of dwarfs. And yet, the single entrance from the players bench to the ice surface was at least two feet above it. Our boys played there when they were younger and more than one toppled headlong to begin their shift; while others needed to be lifted onto the bench by coaches at the end of theirs. However, my favorite aspect of this arena was the giant analog clock at one end of the ice that hearkened back to a simpler, pre-digital age; not unlike the fabled manual scoreboard at Fenway Park in Boston.
Other older rinks both the Boy and Devil have played on have been noticeably undersized or misshapen. They’ve both played on a couple of square configurations where a puck fired into the corner can take any number of unusual caroms; which certainly serves to keep players on both sides on their toes. Home teams have a decided advantage in getting to know how to play the bounces.
In some towns coloured circles at both ends of the rink signal that these hockey surfaces also double as sheets of ice for Canada’s other belove Winter sport – curling. Where some cities don’t have enough ice for hockey, these small towns apparently don’t have enough hockey for ice.
Perhaps one of my favourite recent discoveries occurred at a rink where the local authorities had obviously been tasked with installing safety netting to protect the hockey fans; a general rule that was implemented nationwide some years ago after a tragic fatal incident at an National Hockey League game. But in this particular centre’s case, they either didn’t have the resources or desire as the protective barrier was hung only on the home spectator half of the ice. Visiting fans are obviously meant to fend for themselves. I’ve a good mind to open an umbrella the next time I’m there taking in a game.
The old rinks are fewer and far between these days as the public demands the latest and greatest. I, for one, am generally not opposed to the four-pad with the bar. But I, and I know many others, appreciate walking into an old rink chalk full of history and memories. They tore down the oldest rink in our town a couple of years ago as it was well worn and sat on prime land. In its last days, I heard many young players declaring their love for the old rink, its rock hard ice and high wooden rafters. A shiny new two-pad surrounded by glass, ambient light and great sightlines has been built at the other end of town, where the majority of my kids’ home games are played. We, and others, who visit and play here will live and create the stories that will give these buildings their unique characters as time marches on; digitally or otherwise.