It was always best to be the first on the ice — perfect and clean — without prior cuts. In other words: Zamboni perfect.
The other day, in Minneapolis, I went back home to a time long ago when I would step out on the outdoor ice of Winnipeg in River Heights, Sargent Park, and other community club rinks. It’s where hockey started for me — outdoor ice and the back-street alleys growing up in Canada.
Eventually, it was all moved to indoor rinks in Winnipeg and small rural towns within an hour’s drive. Proud to have been part of the invincible River Heights Cardinals with the likes of David Morrow, Doug Thornton, Alex Narvey and others. Not the big league names one would know (although Dougie did well) — but big names, giants, in my minor hockey legacy and where I had the most fun.
I was part of a provincial championship team — the South AAA Winnipeg Panthers. We won playing in the Winnipeg Arena — “the old barn.” We even had the dressing room of the WHA Winnipeg Jets that night, as one of the players’ dad was its marquee player. And if you guessed who — you’d be right.
But the best hockey — the very best — was always in the back alleys, with the older kids, playing until it was well dark and past your bedtime. It only ended when my mom would call out to me to “come in” and get ready for bed.
The other day, in Minneapolis, there were moments of grace to remember many youthful joys, including my mom calling me in. My mom died on the same date a number of years ago.
The ice on Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun) a block from my house was perfection. There was a recent melt, no snow, followed by days of Canadian cold, and now it was Zamboni-quality-perfect-ice.
The little boy who loved hockey growing up in Winnipeg (and still does) knew there was only one thing do: Lace ’em up — and I did.
And there I was, “first on the ice.” A vast sheet without boards, without blue lines, without stands or goals. No confining limits, and quietness in the lake’s center broken only by the cutting edges of my skates trying to execute old moves and by the occasional deep vibrations of echoed ice cracking and shifting.
I remembered how much I loved skating, accelerating and striding out with determination with skills now long faded. I was never good enough to make it up the ladder of hockey excellence beyond the teenage years — and in some ways I’m thankful. But that day was as close to being in hockey heaven as I could imagine. Or maybe at least I had a sense of what it might be like to be in one of those Molson Canadian commercials that epitomized Canadian hockey and culture.
Either way — both are peak spiritual experiences for those of us from north of the border.
After some time, I saw someone else out there, too. I skated over and met a woman named Carolyn on figure skates from just down the block. She knew as well as I did what a moment this was. She was a gorgeous skater, gliding over the ice with grace and confidence — trying out her old moves from high school. We snapped some pics of each other. We each got the shot to memorialize this afternoon.
Every few years, or perhaps every few decades, one is blessed — the stars align, the wind dies down and there is a moment that is exceptional in the sacredness of one’s life story. When one can walk or even skate back into one’s past and recall childhood joy.
I stayed out there, gliding on the smooth sheet, for an hour and half, with the sun setting on a glorious day in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But I was really back home on the rinks of Winnipeg and in the back alley behind my old house on Elm Street in River Heights. I would have stayed out there until the sun was well set down over the horizon. But I heard my mom calling out to me from the January day when she died years ago. It was time to come in.
Joel W. Carter lives in Minneapolis.