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In Our Own Backyard...Let's play hockey!

Anyone who happened to watch the Lumberjacks play in Hockey Day Minnesota last Saturday morning must have felt the tug. Watching kids skate on an outdoor rink, with towering drifts all around and fans bundled up like fat sardines, may be something new and novel to today’s generation. But for many of us who were watching, it was like immersing ourselves in the midst of a Normal Rockwell painting, one with which we are intimately familiar.

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I first learned to skate as a little girl on the iced-over version of the town’s swimming beach. Whether we skated or not depended on whether anyone got around to shoveling the rink. That was back in the day when skates were just a thin layer of leather between your foot and the freezing cold. We knew nothing of toe warmers or Smart Wool socks back then, and my toes would get so cold I couldn’t feel them any longer. 

Olympic skater Peggy Fleming was just hitting her stride, and my sister and I longed to take skating lessons so we could skate just like her. And try as we might to master the T stop, crossovers, spiral and waltz jump, somehow it never quite looked the same.

Our high school hockey team played outdoors at that time, and games could go on for a long, long time — depending on how many pucks got launched into the nearby snowdrifts. Fans had to watch at their own risk lest a flying, frozen puck catch them unawares. There was no Zamboni to resurface the ice, but a legion of dads would come out between periods with wide shovels and brooms to sweep up the snow and ice shavings. Only the most extreme holes were filled in, so it was not out of the question for a forward on a breakaway to hit a nick in the ice and go flying. If it happened to snow on a game day, that presented a whole new set of problems —like not being able to see the puck at all!

By the time I was in high school, the town had built an indoor ice arena and games became a much different experience. Only a few years after I graduated, the local team made its first appearance in the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament, and there was no looking back from there.

My own son started skating outdoors. From the time he first “launched” on double-bladed skates at the age of 3, to making endless rounds of the ice holding on to a folding chair as an Ice Mite, he loved it. And so, it was no big sacrifice to go to practices, all of them on outdoor rinks.

“Rink Rats,” as they are called both then and now, develop into a sturdier, more rugged breed of hockey players. The speed and finesse of indoor programs are sometimes missing, but the determination, power and sheer will power of those players are unequaled. They are the ones who not only go to practices and play games, but every chance they get they go down to the rink “just to hit the puck around.” Sometimes after the city turns off the lights on the rink at night, the shadowy figures of the neighborhood kids can just be made out in the darkness, accompanied by the scrape of blades on ice and the occasional ring of the puck on the goal pipes.  

All of my son’s games were outdoors at various rinks around Cloquet and Duluth for the first few years. Often the snowdrifts were higher than the boards, and we parents would watch looking down on the action. I remember one game at the Irving rink in Duluth where it was so cold the team had to come into the warming house between periods and we moms would warm their skates with hair dryers. The only problem was that when we got four or five dryers going at once, we’d blow a fuse and plunge the whole place into darkness. The patient rink attendant would flip a few switches and the electricity would come to life again — until the blow dryers got fired up and we’d blew the fuses all over again.

Even after my son was older and played most of his games in The Barn at Cloquet’s Pine Valley, the inside rink was pretty much as cold as the outside in order to keep the ice frozen. Parents would sit huddled in their parkas, Sorel boots and chopper mitts, nursing thermoses of coffee or hot chocolate and trying to keep warm as the kids played hockey.

Today’s hockey experience is far more “user-friendly,” with heated warming lobbies and observation decks, refrigerated ice surfaces that make it so comfortable you can watch in shirtsleeves, and no snow on the rink, cracks in the ice, or subzero temperatures to freeze your feet. 

But watching the sheer joy of the hockey players at last Saturday’s outdoor game reminded me that’s what hockey was originally all about. Cloquet greats Corey Millen, Jamie Langenbrunner, Derek Plante and Ricky Mrozik all got their start on outdoor ice, and they were as talented and rugged as anyone in the league. 

Perhaps a return to outdoor ice — at least for a time or two each season — is what it takes to keep the memories alive.