It all started quite innocently at a place we called Kenyon’s Pond.
That was my first experience with skating and the game of hockey. It was a tiny frozen pond just a couple of blocks from my childhood house in Spencer, Wisconsin. As a sports crazed youngster I got my first taste of skating on the pond there.
A basketball player by trade I was challenged by a lack of height and motivated by a competitive drive to win at everything. At least until that fateful Friday, during my sophomore year, in November of 1972 when coach Steve Sevals decided my basketball career was over. Not finding my name on that team roster hanging on the lockeroom wall was at that time, the most devastating setback of my life.
As that door slammed shut, a classmate who lived just down the lake from me, Mike Wolff opened a new door. Having just moved to town that summer I was short on friends and desperate to fill the void in my sports heart. He convinced me to play hockey which was a life changer for me. I later convinced him we should skate from his house to mine two days after the ice froze on Red Cedar Lake. When he went through the ice and nearly froze to death before I could get him to my house—I nearly changed his life—or ended it. Desperate to improve my hockey skills I shoveled off a rink on the lake. It was the hours on that roughshod ice coupled with the warm weather street hockey we played that my love for the game flourished.
Forty some years later the power of the pond seems to be more fairy tale than fact. The power in question is the benefits of unstructured ice time or old fashioned “rat or pond hockey” as we once called it. We are so far removed from it that when I hold open “rat hockey” sessions I invariably get parents asking me what that means. The movement toward high priced, structured, coach heavy camps, clinics and programs has relegated pond hockey to an afterthought.
If there isn’t a coach telling us what to do every second then we couldn’t possibly be learning anything. Faith in the ability of the game itself to teach the game has disappeared. USA Hockey’s Dave Peterson once said, “the ice is the best coach, it never says no.” The ability of unstructured ice time to cultivate a player’s enjoyment and passion for the game is not widely embraced anymore.
With the cost of the game skyrocketing like a Shea Weber slap shot we feel the obligation to structure all of our expensive ice time into military-like workouts. Scheduling open ice time, without coaches barking instructions, is only found in small town rinks run by local hockey associations. Too many outdoor rinks have either disappeared like wooden sticks or are a mere ghost town of years past.
Hockey’s modest blue collar roots have since been severed.
The nebulous nature of the outdoor rink experience that motivated and refined the game’s greatest players has been rendered as insignificant to the modern player’s development. It has been replaced by the rigid and costly structure of organized sports.
As a high school hockey coach I have been fortunate to be around several groups of players who had a passion for the unstructured game. They continued the “rink rat” tradition and spent many hours on the outdoor rink in Spooner and at the Riverside rink in Wausau. Without a doubt, the best players I have been around have always been those who spent countless hours on the ice with no coach in sight. I am confident it is a formula that still works.
The lure of AAA and all-star hockey teams and their never-ending procession of games have proven to be a carrot most cannot resist. When presented with the choice between the skill development of unstructured hockey opportunities and another team, more games and endless travel expenses we cannot seem to resist the neon glow of the scoreboard. In the face of countless pleas by hockey experts to scale back the number of games we play, we scoff at them pull on another jersey and jump in the car for another road trip.
Getting players back on the outdoor rink may be a pipe dream but I believe, we the keepers of the game can make it happen. Giving players back those unstructured opportunities is completely within our control. And it is that “free play” that is the beating heart of player’s passion for the game. Developing that passion for the game should be our measuring stick, not wins and losses at another tournament, on another team in another town.
Nurturing that passion as a parent or a coach produces players that love to play the game regardless of their ability. And remarkably, whether you turn out to simply be a late-night adult league novice or the greatest player in the world, you play the game for the same reason. “It wasn’t my talent that made me the “great one,” said Wayne Gretzky, “it was my passion for the game.”
Nowhere is that passion more evident than on the pond. Isn’t about time we made a concerted effort to return the game to its pond hockey roots?
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org