When my youngest son became a player on the A2 Mite team for the Southern Illinois Ice Hawks in the 2009-10 season, his team was allocated around three hours of ice time a week. That was split into one hour of practice, twice a week, and a game on the weekend. Having around 3 hours of ice time a week didn’t seem like a lot of ice time — and it wasn’t, but it was a full hour more than what the rec teams got.
Nic and his teammates couldn’t wait to play their first game. They’d been through “learn-to-play” lessons after they’d mastered the “learn-to-skate” lessons, and, finally, it was time. There they were, in their brand-new Ice Hawks jerseys with their names and numbers on the back, stepping on the ice for their first time ever to compete.
Before that game was over, something had happened. Every single one of those players got hooked. One game, totalling 32 minutes on the time clock, was all it took for them to catch hockey fever, the disease that makes you want to play hockey, all the time. To do that, all they wanted was more time on the ice.
But ice time was a commodity in short supply.
We were just outside of St. Louis, Missouri – home to the St. Louis Blues. Since 1967, when the Blues became the 12th team in the NHL, the popularity of hockey in the greater St. Louis area had blossomed. With that interest meant rinks were built – both private and municipal – clubs were born, and skating programs were developed feeding into playing programs. The clubs started growing and with their growth was a greater demand for ice time to cover the ever-increasing number of teams. Just like many other success stories, when it comes to ice time, the demand outstripped the supply.
What About DIY?
DIY is usually an option, but it wasn’t while we were in STL. Backyard rinks in St. Louis are really tough to setup as the climate is just too warm. The most famous backyard skater of all, The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, still has a home in the St. Louis area but even Number 99 himself, nay, even the Wayner’s dad, the ultimate king of the backyard rinks, Walter Gretzky, would have had trouble maintaining a rink in that climate. It’s not that we didn’t get snow: we did. And when it snowed there would be traffic chaos and the schools would shut down. But cold enough, long enough for a backyard rink? Never.
Some of our local rinks had both “Stick-and-Puck” (S&P) and “Drop-In-Hockey” (DIH) sessions, but those slots were normally available throughout the week, during school hours, putting them out of reach of our kids, but perfect for the college students and ‘old timers’ from the Scott Hockey League who wanted to stretch their legs and get some exercise. DIH was always exciting: usually at least two goalies would show up and, in some rinks, there were no age limits, so our Mites would have to skate hard to keep up with the pace of play. And the older players generally encouraged the younger ones to play which was a good thing because Nic would have melted into the ice if I started screaming at one of the older players to “CHANGE!”
Snow days that shut down the schools didn’t usually prevent the hockey car pools from functioning. A snow day was always welcomed, but for players with hockey fever, it meant an extra DIH or Stick-and-Puck opportunity.
Where we now live, in the Saguenay region of Quebec, Canada, outdoor rinks and backyard rinks are not just possible, they’re plentiful. We have a pond in our backyard, which makes rink-making really easy, and Nic has been using it for skating practice and honing in his slapshot skills for a couple of weeks now. Our first snow fell at the end of October, and it’s been at the freezing mark or well below that ever since.
And the outdoor rinks managed by the municipalities are in full swing. We have half a dozen of these, most of them with trailers or wooden houses where you can change your skates and get warmed. When the outdoor rinks are open, there is always someone there from the municipality to shovel snow, keep the fire in the stove going and make sure everyone behaves themselves as they should.
Even when the temperature goes to minus a million – okay, it doesn’t get that cold but it went down to -20ºF (-29ºC) for 5 straight weeks last year — that doesn’t stop the rink rats from coming out to play. As soon as there’s ice available somewhere, right around supper time, the home phone will be ringing. Someone will be putting together a game, somewhere, on a rink outdoors, and they’ll want Nic to come out to play.
Nic: “Mom, can I play hockey tonight?”
Nic: “And, Mom, can you drive?”
Me: “Sure. Finish your homework, pack your lunch for tomorrow and let’s go.”
Where there’s ice, there’s hockey. And where there’s hockey, everyone needs more ice.