We all have memories of the good old days. The older one gets, the more unusual they seem.
When I was a young lad growing up in Grand Forks, N.D., the only inside rink in the city was the University of North Dakota arena. It was a glorified farm shed with no heating, and when it was cold outside, it was butt-busting freezing cold inside.
The seating was plain hard wooden benches, but when the Fighting Sioux played hockey, that place was always full. It didn’t have near the seating of the new arena, but it sure was a sociable place to be.
I learned even as a kid that when each period ended, there would be a stampede to the concessions counter for coffee, cocoa, hot dogs and anything that was hot and cheap. I learned early on that when you wanted to get through the crowd in the eatery fast, all you had to do was hold a cup over your head — full or empty — and yell “hot coffee.” The crowd would part like the Red Sea.
Grand Forks had outdoor skating rinks all over town, each with its own warming house. Back in the day, people had just one car if they were lucky. You walked to those rinks or took a bus.
It’s a good thing they didn’t have wind chill charts in those days, or there would have been no hockey games at all. But there would be games every weekend. We’d put on coats, hoods, scarves and big gloves over our Park Board hockey equipment. It was usually so cold that there were no spectators … only the teams playing and those waiting to play.
When we weren’t playing hockey, we’d just go down in the evening and speed skate, jump barrels, barrel into snowbanks and basically show off for the girls. If the wind was low, the temperature didn’t really make any difference because everyone was constantly moving.
The warming houses were always manned by Park Board employees. They kept the furnaces or stoves red hot so the houses were toasty warm. They had no gas-operated stoves back in the 1950s. Instead, they relied on good old hand-chopped logs.
We’d go after supper and not return until the warming house closed between 8 and 9 p.m. All of the ice was cleaned by a pickup truck with a plow, if it happened to be available. Otherwise, we had wide plow-like shovels. We’d push them from one end of the rink to the other until all was cleared. Sometimes by the time we finished cleaning, it was time to walk home. And no matter what the temperature was when we finally got to skate, that night walk home was always colder than a well driller’s behind (as my father liked to put it).
While I was in the first eight grades, my friends and I played hockey all winter on a daily basis. By the time I was in seventh grade, I was lucky enough to make the citywide all-star team that was selected to play the Winnipeg all-stars. The first game was in Grand Forks, the second in Manitoba (Canada). There was not much of a crowd in Grand Forks, but the game drew thousands in Winnipeg. It was both fun and exciting. I thought that hockey was definitely going to be my sport of choice.
Such was not to be. When I started high school at St. James Academy, they dropped hockey. It was restarted when I was in my junior year, but then we moved to Fargo. That year, Shanley dropped hockey. By the time I graduated, both schools had reinstated their programs. For me, though, the four years off denied me my hope of playing college hockey.
In my grade-school years, we liked to go for rides by hooking our sticks on a bumper. A real trick was to sling your hockey stick and skates over your back and then grab onto the bumper and slide to the rink … without killing your buddies who were doing the same thing on the same bumper at the same time.
We got a few nicks and bumps, but we did get there on time. Hitting the old streetcar tracks, though, could be a problem. If you got caught in a rut, your ankles would take a hit. Then you’d usually let go, sliding around with either your stick or the skates that swung from it creasing the heads or other parts of your buddies.
I’m still not sure if it was our parents going nuts trying to figure out why our boots were wearing out so fast or the bus company putting spotters on the back of the bus. Either way, by seventh grade, that had stopped.
Nowadays, if you did what we did, you’d be in juvenile court in a nanosecond. Back then, though, there were very few cop cars to cover a pretty large area. I wouldn’t give up my youthful memories for anything, but it’s probably best. Had I been born in this generation with the same playful tendencies, I’d be writing of my experiences not as a retired judge, but as a reformed juvenile.
I’m entering this year in good health and I wish everyone a happy — and, more importantly, a healthy — new year. Amen.