The excitement surrounding pond hockey begins early in the day, the first time one of us goes out and measures the ice. Drill in hand we drive the bit into the frozen surface of the lake hoping like children that it won't give too soon, that we will feel at least four inches of resistance before hitting water. We are dying to send out the text telling everyone that the ice is thick enough to skate, that the game is on.
Once the news is out, we feel ourselves getting more and more distracted as the day goes on, maybe cutting corners on some task at work or reading a bedtime story a bit more quickly than usual. By the time we are sitting on the ice lacing up skates, we are bursting with the same enthusiasm we see in the kids we are now raising, the ones we are out on the ice with most of the time. Through a series of very cold winters, our sons and daughters have come to love the ice just as we do. But these are the games reserved just for us.
When we arrive, we race through the snow with our sticks and skates in hand, slipping our way down the icy path. We are a ragtag bunch in sweatshirts and sweatpants, the occasional hockey jersey of some player traded away long ago. We adjust the straps on our shin guards, holding them on our legs with a few turns of hockey tape, the Velcro worn out years ago. We blow on our fingers as we try to lace up our skates in single digit temperatures. It feels just like it did when we were teenagers and before. We do everything quickly, not to beat the cold but to get out onto the ice that much more quickly. When we first stride out and start skating around with a puck, we are transported. Time shifts backwards, and we are kids again.
With that comes a recklessness most of us left behind years ago. We skate hard despite the rust we are shaking off all over the ice. There is no checking, but no shortage of friendly bumps. One guy needs to get his knee drained after taking a hard fall a couple of weeks ago; it looks like a rotten grapefruit. Naturally, he is postponing the procedure until the ice melts. This same guy completes a thorough warm-up routine at home before heading out onto the ice to protect his hip replacement. Another plays with a brace to protect his newly repaired quad tendon, a brace he recently bent in a game. Everyone is sore, and bruised, and scraped. I am pretty sure at least a couple of us have been concussed. No one is the athlete he once was, but we play like we are teenagers again.
There is little we won't do to make it so we can get a game. We have used shovels, and brooms, and a particularly effective rubber squeegee to clear the ice between efforts. We have run snow blowers across the frozen lake, and followed behind with hoses connected to hot water heaters and threaded through basement windows. One guy took a bunch of PVC pipe and built a hand-held Zamboni that attaches to a hose to help spread the water more evenly. We have been out there in groups, and pairs, and alone prepping the ice. We have filled small cracks by hand with snow and water, packing down our patchwork with a puck. We have poured bottles of water we should have been drinking into expansion cracks to fill the gaps. Hoses have frozen. Hands and feet have frozen. Temperatures have been so cold that the water coming out of the hose froze in ripples on the ice before it could finish spreading out.
We have rescheduled business meetings, dates with our wives, trips to the store. We have postponed countless meals, and chores, and bedtimes. We have played past the point of exhaustion and then called for a quick game to five. We have played four-on-four with goalies, and one-on-one without any goals at all. Six weeks of ice in a row this year, and I am not sure any of us really wants Spring to arrive.
One guy, who owns a construction company, has brought out a set of diesel-powered highway lights the last couple of years. After getting the kids to bed, we head out for another hour or two under the lights. I can hear that diesel generator fire up and see the glow of the lights from my house down the road. I don't think I can explain to someone who has not been there the sheer beauty of that scene, driving across the dam and seeing that pool of bright white light, the silvery sheen of fresh ice. I have stood and stared at the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo's David; I have seen the Mona Lisa. They come close.
After a game, sitting on porch furniture pulled out atop the frozen lake, we share a few beers. Despite storing them in coolers to insulate them against the arctic cold, we typically wind up sipping slushies as the post game chill descends. The addition of drinks is the only thing that separates this from the pond hockey of our childhoods; the conversation is the same we had as kids. It starts with verbal highlight reels: excited accounts of goals we scored, the perfect cross-ice pass, collective groans in response to the memory of the hardest falls. We laugh about the open net shot sent sailing wide, or some penalty-worthy hack. Listen to the words, the unbridled enthusiasm, and you are transported twenty or thirty years into the past. We are just kids talking about a game.
Eventually, with steam rising off of us and up into the frigid night air, the talk moves to our kids and our jobs, retirement savings and investments. Huddled around an open fire, we make the transition back into adulthood. Slowly we remember that our lives now include dependents and mortgages, ailing parents and daughters who date. The frozen surface of our lake has hosted conversations about the tragedy of burying a parent, and the importance of realizing how little time we all have. We have discussed the tricky balance of work and the rest of life. We have voiced our hopes for the education of our children. We have debated local politics, and lamented the gradual break down of our aging bodies. Our conversations, sitting there after a game, become unequivocally adult. We all have moments when we wonder how we became such grown-ups.
That is the only time we remember how old we are, when the conversation turns to the responsibilities we all have. The rest of the hours we spend preparing and playing we are time travelers, kids basking in the wonder of winter and the magic of water turned to ice.
I know my neighbors better than I did before, or likely ever would have without the ice. I have learned more about their jobs, their families, and their finances. I have heard stories of some pretty rough times, and reflections about lives sailing along smoothly. Hockey is like that. Missed opportunities, cheap shots, and hard falls balanced against the smooth glide of a perfectly passed puck, the satisfying click of hitting another guy's blade, the celebration of a goal.
The ice will melt this week, and Spring will slowly start to emerge. Like a little kid, I will sulk a bit as I put away my skates. But, like a little kid, I will look forward to next year and all the years to come. Next year, when the lake freezes, men one year older will lace up and let the magic of pond hockey once again take us back to our youth.