The sounds ricocheting out of the woods one cold, crisp winter's day two years ago were as distinctive as any Jack Parker heard in his six-plus decades living in eastern Massachusetts. While the longtime Boston University hockey coach and his wife, Jacqueline, were strolling through the Annisquam section of Gloucester on Cape Ann, alongside an old quarry, Parker detected the telltale scratch of skate blades carving ice and the rhythmic tap-tap-tapping of vulcanized rubber against wooden stick blades.
"There's a little pond with a huge rock that you could shoot pucks against," recalls Parker. "There were a bunch of Gloucester High hockey players out there. So I told them, 'I'll be right back, boys.' I walked back to my house, got my skates out of the trunk, had a stick, and went up and took a skate with them. It was just fabulous."
The sight of a legendary college coach taking a spin with a group of teenagers might seem like a made-for-Hallmark moment -- especially when the coach is already in his 60s, with more than 700 wins and two national championships on his Hall of Fame résumé at the time (now 821 and three, respectively). But it didn't surprise Jacqueline, and it shouldn't surprise anyone who knows her husband. Like his chief rival and respected friend a few miles away on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue -- Boston College's Jerry York -- Jack Parker grew up in the tight-knit neighborhoods surrounding Boston. Hockey is in his blood.
Parker and York, both 64 and grandfathers, learned to play the game and came to love it on the frozen ponds and outdoor rinks sprinkled throughout Boston and its suburbs. So there's a certain symmetry in the fact that these two giants of the college game, two men who still wax nostalgic at the memories of playing outside, will meet on Friday, Jan. 8, in the nightcap of the Hockey East doubleheader at Fenway Park.
"Jack and I have been trying over the past seven years to have a game at Fenway," says York. "At one point, four or five years ago, it actually got close to getting done, but the Red Sox were always doing some additions and renovations, so it got put on the back burner. I almost had given up on the idea.
"But when the NHL Winter Classic came, this was the perfect scenario for us. Fenway Park is such a historic landmark, not just in New England, but all of North America. This brings us right back to the outdoors, when you learned hockey."
Before these coaches embarked on their remarkably successful coaching careers (1,652 wins and six national titles between them), before they rubbed elbows while players in college (Parker at BU, York at BC, naturally), before they first faced off almost exactly 48 years ago in high school, on New Year's Day in 1962, they were pond rats, pure and simple.
They grew up outside Boston -- York in Watertown, Parker in Somerville -- and may well have crossed paths before that New Year's match. Both York and Parker have vivid recollections of the game, and the locations, that filled the winter days of their youth. Both lament the loss of natural ice and the freedom it promised. There were few adults, no coaches, no drills, no set practices, no "official" games and no referees, other than the kids on the ice.
"We learned to play the game differently," says Parker. "Kids had fun learning to play, instead of having all this organized pressure on them all the time.
"Nowadays, it's completely different."
In the 1950s and early 1960s in Massachusetts, there was an unmatched sense of anticipation when the leaves fell in late autumn and the skies turned gray and raw. Playing outside, regardless of the weather, was still the major pastime. Kids weren't preoccupied with Sony PlayStations, Xbox 360s or Nintendo Wiis. "As October blended into November, we were thinking, just let it get cold," says York. "And when it did get cold, we were praying it wouldn't snow, because that was the worst combination."
Parker remembers the almost unbearable weeks leading up to the holidays and the excruciating wait to see if there would be new skates and sticks, maybe hockey gloves and shin guards, under the Christmas tree. The weeks that followed were filled with crack-of-dawn mornings, collecting gear and warm clothes, a Thermos filled with soup or hot chocolate, a few oranges and sandwiches, and enough bundled energy to last the day. Sunup to sundown.
"We'd play for hours and hours," says York. "People have that in other parts of the country with baseball or basketball. But here, it was a New England tradition, getting dropped off at a pond and just playing hockey."
York had several options close to home, including a pond by the Weston Observatory, where he would skate while his father, a doctor, made his rounds visiting the Jesuit priests. He might skate at the flooded tennis courts at Victory Field in Watertown, or the enormous, windswept Spy Pond in Arlington. "If you missed the goal, you had to chase the puck forever," he says.
But Chandlers Pond in Brighton was York's choice venue, not only for the "black ice" that would set in during a cold snap, but also because his mom could park the family car close enough to allow him and his buddies to lace their skates in the warmth of the back seat.
The route to Parker's favorite locale was even more circuitous. Parker, his twin brother Bobby and their friends would hop aboard a bus in Somerville, take it to west Medford, then hike through a cemetery to Brooks Estates. There, the sunlight would filter through the evergreens that provided the vapor-shrouded skaters protection from the wind, and the smaller surfaces kept the puck in play. "It wasn't like skating on Spy Pond," says Parker. "With the wind there, you could skate fast one way, but going the other way you couldn't get back."
"The most precious thing of all was the puck," Parker adds. "Sometimes they'd go to the edge of the lake, which wasn't frozen, and they'd fall in. Or they'd be shot into the woods and you couldn't find them. Pucks were something you really took care of."
Players also took care of one another. Without adults running interference or organizing play dates, the kids managed things themselves. The parents who did show up were typically more interested in playing than supervising.
"What was good about Brooks Estates," says Parker, "was that there were a lot of hockey players in Medford, guys like Billy Riley, Eddie McCarty; they all played college hockey. Billy played with me at BU, Eddie played at Northeastern. We had Mr. Riley [Billy's father] out there, a former All-American, and players from Dartmouth, older guys who could show you how to play. And you thought it was really cool if you could get into a game with the good guys. Your heroes were out there."
Clearly, the outdoor game is more challenging and less predictable, making the pond hockey player a master of adaptation, always adjusting to changing conditions. There are no Zambonis. If Mother Nature delivers snow, players must shovel to clear a "rink." The ice can be smooth or rough, with cracks and ripples and frozen leaves and sticks interrupting pucks and skates alike. Skating outside is akin to the old axiom regarding another popular Northeast winter pastime: If you can ski in New England, you can ski anywhere.
"First of all, you had to hang onto the puck. It was fun to hang onto the puck," says Parker. "You learned to stick handle because there was nobody telling you anything different. It would be three-on-three, and you weren't shooting the puck off the boards, and you weren't firing the puck at anybody, because you couldn't. It would disappear on you.
"All you did was pass it and carry it. So you were always trying different moves; the idea was to hang on to it as best you could. Sometimes it would be a bigger game, six-on-six, if the older guys were playing. But more than anything else, you learned to skate because you never came off the ice."
Parker and his young classmates had the added advantage of attending St. Ann's School in Somerville.
"We went to Catholic school, and we'd have Wednesday afternoons off because the public school kids would come in for release day, for religious education. So we'd be up at Brooks Estate before anybody else was," Parker says with a grin. "We were getting instructed in a different religion up at the ponds. But that was great because we could get up to Brooks by 12:30, and there was nobody there. So there were a few kids from St. Ann's there, and we owned the place."
York tries to re-create that same atmosphere for his Eagles at the nearby outdoor rink at Lars Anderson Park in Brookline. "We always try to do that, if the weather cooperates," says York. "We've done it nine of the 15 years I've been here, at some point during the Christmas vacation, just to bring back the joy of playing hockey.
"I think we get that when we go to these outdoor rinks. It brings back a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to your young guys who are so accustomed to big venues and big rinks. But all of a sudden, you're outside, playing where the game originated."
Which is exactly the atmosphere both York and Parker are hoping to find at Fenway, more than a half-century after they first heeded hockey's siren song on the local ponds of Boston.
Brion O'Connor is a Boston-based freelance writer.