We played in the dark. Most years the pond at the edge of the woods didn't freeze, but the wetland shallows next to it usually did, that swamp where we'd skate before school between the hummocks and the scrub pines and the tree roots. Summers it was all reeds and skunk cabbage and mud to your ankles, but in a good winter it was a clean sheet of ice and a dozen kids on skates. All red-cheeked speed and cut-down sticks we'd play until it was time to run for the bus. The ice was best before the sun got to it.
Afternoons we'd play up and back in the puddles, shouting, the puck slow to fire and the blade of your stick like a plow in the slush, heavy in your hands and slow, laughing, all that wet wool and leather, until the sun went down and the ice tightened again and for a while we'd go quiet, before it was too dark to see, serious because it was fast again and slick. All you could hear then was our breathing and the sound of the skates cutting the ice.
I was 5 when my father taught me hockey. He wore brown corduroy pants, a gray sweater and a pair of battered Tacks. He used shoeblack on the toes every autumn and threaded them with a new pair of waxed white laces. He rewrapped his old Victoriaville stick from the same roll of black friction tape he used to rewire broken lamps and sockets. Winter mornings or nights or weekends we'd skate together. "Head up, stick down," he'd say and chop that straight blade clean and hard onto the ice three times. The sound of it rang into the trees. Some nights before dinner he'd skate sprints while I waited on a snowbank. Gassed, smiling, he'd glide back to me with his hands on his knees and his chest heaving and bend to help unlace my skates for the walk home. Warm spells we'd go to the rink in town and skate with the crowds. It was too loud for us both and too slow, but my mother liked skating to the waltzes.
Summers we'd stickhandle in the garage or walk out into the heat to find last winter's pucks hiding in the grass while we talked about baseball. By the time I was 9 years old I was a goalie, and there were still just six teams in the NHL.
On Christmas visits to the two grandmothers in Cleveland, we'd go down to the old arena on Euclid Avenue. It was as dark as a midwinter barn and sour with cigar smoke and monoxide and ammonia, and we'd climb the risers to watch the Barons of the American Hockey League play the Buffalo Bisons or the Rochester Americans or the Clippers, all the way up from Baltimore. Even in the helmetless mid-'60s, even in a gap-toothed rust-belt league held together by scar tissue, fists and ambition, the place was an anachronism, a time machine, a cauliflower earful of antique thunder, muffled obscenity and undiagnosed concussion. No Plexiglas. Just chicken wire.
Years later, up and out through school and club leagues and into a long middle age of midnight scrimmages and lunchtime shinny games from Minnesota to Redondo to Manhattan, I've still never seen anything like it.
Up and out of the subway Sunday evening to Madison Square Garden and the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The NHL is back, and with it NHL fans and NHL money and NHL noise and the antiseptic NHL spectacle of professional hockey. The game at its highest level. The game lately buried under an avalanche of money and bad press.
A quarter of the greed-short season already come and gone.
On Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue, tourists roll wet luggage through the snow on the way to the Penn Station cab stands. Fathers and sons and mothers and daughters in souvenir Rangers jerseys crowd the sidewalks around them. Maybe like me they've come here to rekindle something, to reconnect with something optimistic that can be had only firsthand. Because watching the game on television is like seeing it through a keyhole. It obscures as much as it reveals. Even writing about it hides it. Reading about it. Maybe this is why we're all here. Not just to admire the high level of play or to root for the local colors, but to feel, however briefly and imperfectly, the thing itself. Not because of the spectacle but in spite of it.
When they drop the puck, the rink blazes bright as noon.
I'm twice as old as my father was on the first day he taught me to skate with my head up and my stick down. That was 50 years ago. He's in Florida now and I'll call him after the game. I'll remind him about the pond and the swamp and the long gone Cleveland Arena. Because up here in the press box, in one of the quiet moments between the rising and the falling of the cheers and the music, I know I'll close my eyes and feel the cold on my face and I'll lean forward in my seat and I'll hear the sound of skates on the ice and the clatter of the sticks in the darkness and think of him.