Late this autumn I was able to strike up a correspondence with a cheerful Canadian reader and gifted writer, Marc Baril, of Ottawa. He shared with me the manuscript for a piece on pond hockey he had published in the Ottawa Citizen on January 30, 2005, and I enjoyed it so thoroughly I knew I had to share portions of it with this blog’s audience.
This just seems like the right week to run some excerpts from Marc Baril’s “On Frozen Pond.” Enjoy.
“In eastern Ontario’s United Counties of Prescott-Russell, most locals speak two languages, English and French, yet talk only one, hockey . . .
“Most youngsters will grow up in the local house and travel leagues, yet very few will ever experience the game the way it was meant to be played: beyond the confines of unforgiving boards and state-of-the-art plexiglass, free from the ear-piercing laments of overzealous coaches and obsessed — some might say possessed — parents, devoid of the tricky two-line pass, and bereft of the dreaded left-wing lock.
“When winter made a merciless and unforgiving romp through eastern Ontario in 2003 . . . young players got a chance to live the game like they had never lived it before. For almost three months they would play hockey with a different intent, but with an intensity that would, by season’s end, dramatically alter their perception and appreciation of the game.
“Secluded in the shadows of the Larose Forest’s towering pines, less than a slap shot away from the main highway, the murky waters of a forgotten pond have finally frozen over for the winter . . .
“The unseasonably cold weather, at least by today’s standards, has spurred a few neighbors to action. They have spent the waning days of their Christmas holidays shovelling, scraping, flooding, shovelling and flooding again, hardly concerned with the mind-numbingly bitter cold, and even less so with the repetitiveness of their task.
“When they set out, shovels and water pumps in hand, they had hoped the kids would at least skate often enough to make their efforts worthwhile. Little did they expect that by the end of that first weekend, the pond would have already endured a season’s worth of skating that, as it turns out, would not let up until the spring thaw . . .
“I craved a solitary skate on my own private, glistening surface . . .
“A dozen runny-nosed pre-teens . . . stormed the ice, set up nets, and were in the throes of scurrying in all directions, chasing a hardened tennis ball on a frozen sanctuary that I had often thought of as mine . . .
“Amid the frenetic pace, not once did a whistle blow, and never did the threat of a goal against compromise a rush towards a goal for. It was the antithesis of an NHL game, where suffocating defensive systems have sapped Canada’s national pastime of its back-and-forth, run-and-gun, fire-wagon purity.
“We played for hours that day, barely noticing as our game drifted seamlessly from afternoon into evening, then from evening into night . . .
“As the steam rises from the freshly flooded pond, a few brave locals stand around a crackling bonfire, trying to bring color to limbs that only moments earlier could have justifiably been amputated . . .
“On any given day, smoke billows from the makeshift chimney as a well-fed woodstove plays worthy opponent to frostbite and famine, the only two rivals with the wherewithal to curtail a spirited game of shinny . . .
“They come in to thaw their feet and line their belly, but they will spend no more time than required confined within these walls. The game beckons, and every minute spent in the shack is a minute lost on the ice.”
I’m pleased to report that Marc has his own blog, within which readers can discover additional treatments of hockey played as it should be: out in winter’s elements.