Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hockey Life: Cemetery Swamp

One of the best parts of growing up in Machias, N.Y. -- and there were many -- were pond hockey adventures during the winter. Many afternoons were spent living out my hockey dreams across the rough patches of ice in western New York.

Really, it didn't matter where we all skated. It could be Lime Lake, a pond in a farmer's field or out back behind the Gilbert's. Some of my first strides were taken on an ice patch, formed when snow turned to slush and then froze, in a cut-down corn field.

For the most part, though, my home rink, so to speak, was Cemetery Swamp, just down Roszyk Hill Road from where I grew up. As long as it froze over, and none of us fell in, that's all that mattered.

In a way, it was my hockey classroom. A laboratory, perhaps. It was my place to learn how to skate, practice my dekes (if I ever had any) and put the puck on net.  It was where I could try, fail and, every once in a blue moon, succeed.

As you can see in the picture above, taken in the mid 1970s, hockey equipment was optional. Though we all had skates (I was rocking a pair of Bauer Special Pro 95s, size 12), few of us had hockey gloves, shin guards or shoulder pads. Forget helmets and cages, too. We didn't get those until later, shortly after I knocked out a kid's tooth playing street hockey.

For me, my hockey uniform consisted of layers. Two to three pairs of socks. Long johns under sweat pants or a pair of jeans. A warmup jacket over a sweat shirt (or two), long-sleeve turtleneck and a T-shirt. Looking back, the layers likely served just as much as bodily protection against hard spills as for simply staying warm.

Making our way onto the Cemetery Swamp ice was a bit of an adventure, too.

After getting ready at a friend's house across the street, we'd run down the driveway, across the road and traverse a downward slope in Maple Grove Cemetery to reach the swamp's edge. Like any cemetery, not all of the grave markers stood erect. No, some were flush with the ground. Every so often, when a steel blade met granite, someone would take a spill. Laughter, predictably, would ensue.

For the most part, winter's brutal grip meant the swamp froze solid to the edge. During the so-called shoulders of the season, when temps reached the 40s, there would be some gaps between terra firma and ice. At times, these gaps were mere inches, easily covered in a single step. Others, though, meant taking a leap. Those, too, often solicited laughs, especially after an awkward landing, hard fall or a small splash.

Then, and only then, did we begin to clear the ice. With shovels in hand, we clear away enough snow to form a playing surface, with the piled-up scrapings serving as boards. Not by NHL standards, mind you, but large enough for eight to 10 kids, at the least, to play. In time, we'd learned to build a plow -- a half-sheet of plywood attached to two 2-by-4s -- that two of us would use to clear snow from the rink.

The biggest thing I remember about Cemetery Swamp was the ice being bumpy, rippled and rough. Reeds would stick through. So would small branches. Warm days (relatively speaking) followed by cold nights turned footprints into obstacles. Only once, in the increasingly windy hours before the Blizzard of 1977 that socked Buffalo with mountains of snow, did we skate on smooth ice.

As a result, I was something of a "mudder." I could easily navigate the perils of Cemetery Swamp, but struggled to maintain my balance on any suburban Buffalo rink. It would take me a good 10 warmups laps before I got my legs under me. Once, before trying out for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres, I took a spill, nearly wiping out another kid as I slid into the boards.

It was not my finest moment on ice.

Many years later, after moving to Florida, it was that embarrassment, which I remember just like it happened yesterday, that motivated me to not make the same mistake with Colin. Not only did he start skating at a much younger age (6, vs. my 15), but he has always skated on a rink. That's why, I'm proud to say, he's 10 times the skater I ever was or will be.

I'll admit, though, that I wish, for many reasons, we could move back north, to either western New York or New England. Sure, it would be nice to live closer to family and old friends. I miss the change of seasons, too. And, yes, it would be nice for Colin to play a little pond hockey -- just like his old man once did -- out on Cemetery Swamp.

Some day, we'll make that happen.

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