A Dragonfly in Amber

As much as I am looking forward to ski season, which begins next week, it does signal the end of hockey season.

Hockey is pretty much entirely an outdoor activity for me and, by the time I get back, the ice will be gone. The rink will again be a parking lot for golfers.

This is somewhere between wistful and sad. I first skated seven decades ago when I was about three or four. I would have to be blind not to realize that my hockey life is well into its third period.

The game has been a significant contributor to family lore. Perhaps my first exposure to pure partisanship was that hockey was ever and always good, while it’s winter rival, basketball, was the armpit sport.

Until recently, I didn’t realize how much hockey is freeze framed for me. It is like a dragonfly in amber and the dragonfly is an image of a preppy, WASPy game, played outdoors and often on ponds.

The other day, a player on the opposing team expressed her excitement at playing outdoors for the first time in her life. I almost never played indoors until college. (Yes, careful observers, the pronoun was “her.” In that game I was the only him.)

The revelation that my impression of hockey was not entirely current came in a conversation with a much younger friend, who could not believe that a person like me would have played a game like hockey, let alone cared about it. My friend’s impression of the game bore no resemblance to my dragonfly, which does not include a hockey parent shooting someone at a 10-and-under game. That came much later. Fortunately.

From time to time, I will post a hockey story (especially about how the game once looked), but here is how it began for me.

In addition to the requisite snowsuit, hat and mittens, my three-year-old experience included black figure skates with the toe picks ground off. The point of grinding off the toe pics was to avoid tripping on them. These skates would never be used for spins or jumps so, for me, the pics served no useful purpose.

Even at that age, the look set me apart from the boys who wore hockey skates, but there was a reason.

Two actually.

First, a figure skate blade is slightly wider than the blade of a hockey skate, making it easier for wobbly legs to balance.

Second, figure skates are more maneuverable than hockey skates though there is a trade-off in speed, but that is mostly irrelevant to a toddler.

My father had an interesting approach to teaching skating. He thought there were two problems: narrow and slippery.

Skate blades are narrower than a child’s foot so it would take some learning to get used to them.

The ice is notably more slippery than floor or grass so that too would require a certain mastery.

Why not separate the two skills?

Let the child walk around on the living room rug in his skates and he will master the narrow. Once that is behind him, it is time to introduce the slippery.

My mother was an interior designer who tended to hold rugs in high regard. Much convincing was required that the weight of a three-year-old would do little damage. The vacuum cleaner removed the marks of the skate blades much as a Zamboni does on a rink.

Around Thanksgiving, before any ponds were frozen, I walked around the house in my skates. By January, when there was ice on the local ponds, I was thought to be ready to add gliding on the slippery surface to the repertoire.

I have no idea if this theory worked and I have certainly never seen anyone else do it (even today), but it sounds reasonable.

The gliding would have begun in about 1950 at a nearby pond to which I was driven, then carried like a football in full snowsuit, mittens, hat and black figure skates. At the edge of the pond, I was given a shove.

This would be a fine time for a description of a tiny human flying around on the ice with his newfound skills, but I have no such recollection.

Clearer in my mind is having grandchildren who have already advanced beyond that level, and I will be skiing with them in about a week.


19 Responses to “A Dragonfly in Amber”

Harold Hughes, February 05, 2020 at 5:11 pm said:

The interesting question that it raises is not so much that it’s different but why exactly was his view so limited as to be unable to see that you once played that same game?


Haven Pell, February 05, 2020 at 5:19 pm said:

The conversation centered mostly on players like Hobey Baker (more than a century ago) the evolution of roughness in the game and those who played it then and now. I did not seem like a “now” player.


Peter W Bragdon, February 05, 2020 at 5:16 pm said:

One of my earliest memories occurred on a lake adjacent to the Brooks School campus where my father taught. A strong wind would move me so rapidly across the black ice that I would yell for my father to catch me before the speed became too threatening!
I never had skates with an absolutely tight heel until my father took me to Zwicker’s in Arlington where I was measured for custom made Planert skates, which allowed me to stand on tiptoes without the heel budging. What a feeling this was and it certainly added to balance and acceleration! My father gave me these wonderful skates before my 11th grade year at Exeter when I was in a position to be one of the three Varsity defensemen.


Haven Pell, February 05, 2020 at 5:21 pm said:

I have not heard the word Planert in eons. That would certainly not have described my figure skates.


Meg Dodge, February 05, 2020 at 10:27 pm said:

I too recall wearing custom skates – figure skates. When I traded them for hockey skates in 4th form at St. Paul’s, I thought my mother was going to pull me out of the school. After so many hours at the rink watching me jump and spin and fall, she couldn’t believe I was going to the dark side. Her impression of hockey players was neither “preppy” nor “WASPy.” However, she did not make me return to Omaha. During fall parents’ weekend, she took me into Concord and bought me my first hockey skates, thus equipping me for one of the best parts of my time in Millville.


Haven Pell, February 06, 2020 at 9:07 am said:

As I recall, your switch from figure to hockey skates was the source of much consternation for Bruce and Kim. Hockey for women would definitely have been a stretch for a woman from Tennessee, especially in those times. Thanks for the fun story.


Dick Sonderegger, February 06, 2020 at 9:19 am said:

My daughter started figure skating back when you had to be proficient in both “school figures” and freestyle. The rink was a bit of a drive from our home, so we would hang out at the rink for a couple of hours until it was time to go home. During one of those sessions, my wife was talking with one of the other skating moms. The woman said to my wife “Figure Skating is wonderful — exercise, discipline, concentration, and all that. The only downside is that your daughter will meet hockey players.” Those were the days…


Haven Pell, February 06, 2020 at 9:28 am said:

My daughter had a similar experience but then she became a hockey player.


Dick Sonderegger, February 05, 2020 at 11:35 pm said:

(I don’t know how much space you allow per comment. Please feel free to edit this as you see fit.)


Apropos of your young teammate not understanding how, on earth, you could be a hockey player…

As you know, I first learned to skate as a 6-year old on the St. Paul’s Lower School pond. I’ve already told you about being mystified and disheartened one afternoon because I couldn’t glide across the ice — only to have my father explain to me that when it’s 20 below zero and you only weigh 40 pounds, your skates freeze to the ice and you don’t glide…

After two winters at St. Paul’s we moved to Ann Arbor, where my father pursued his Ph. D. We spent four winters in Ann Arbor, where the fire department flooded the elementary school playgrounds and every recess and after school involved skating with all the other kids.

Ann Arbor had an active youth hockey program and I was enrolled all four years. We played in the University of Michigan rink, so I spent time looking up at all those NCAA championship banners.

After four years in Ann Arbor, it was time for my father to get a real job and we wound up in Marquette — in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on the southern shore of Lake Superior. This was the late 50’s and Marquette got “real winter” back then. The average snowfall in Marquette at that time was 220 inches/year. Again, the city flooded (and plowed) the elementary school playgrounds, so there was always outdoor ice available.

Marquette, of course, had an active youth hockey program, followed by an active senior league, and a well-followed semi-pro team.

I should digress, and point out that youth hockey in Marquette in the late 50’s and early 60’s was not like youth hockey of today. Players of all ages, Mite through Midget, walked to the rink with their bags slung over their shoulders and played in an empty rink — two practices and one game each week. The teams were coached by players on the local semi-pro team and there were no parents anywhere around. I didn’t realize how wonderful this was until my son started playing youth hockey and I started attending games. (I started coaching because I couldn’t stand to sit in the bleachers with all those screaming idiots.)

Interestingly, northern Michigan (the U.P.) at that time did not have High School hockey. That meant I was able to play Bantam and Midget hockey (at a good level) and ski on the High School ski team. It was a GOOD life.

Sadly, time moves on. I graduated from High School, went to college, where I wasn’t big enough to play hockey at that level, flunked out, spent four years in the Marine Corps, went back to college, graduated, got married (again), and joined the work force. “Work/Life Balance” was not a thing back then and my skates and hockey stuff spent their time buried in the back of the storage locker.

Fast forward to February, 1984. I was living in southern Connecticut with my wife and two children, and closing in on my 40th birthday. The Sarajevo Olympics were on and my five-year old daughter was watching the figure skating on television, jumping up and down in front of the screen, and saying “I want to do that!”

As luck would have it, we took a trip to Marquette after the ’84 Olympics were over. Folks in Marquette knew how to fit skates to little, tiny feet and we were off to the races. When we got back to Connecticut after a couple of weeks in the Frozen North we signed her up for group lessons at the local rink.

While standing around, waiting for lessons to end, I realized there was a note on the bulletin board saying “Adult Hockey Players Wanted”. After reading the same note over and over for four or five weeks, I said “OK. I’ll just go and watch (to see how they are).” This was followed by “I’ll just go for a session, to see if I can stil skate.”

I went to that first session and thought I was going to die…

After six months, I was back in shape and playing in the “B” league two to three times a week. I continued to play, two to three times a week, for the next twenty years…

My wife at that time was a professional in the Computer Graphics industry. In the mid-to-late 80’s, she was part of an international team building one of the first ANSI/ISO standards for computer graphics software. Several people on the team were affiliated (either faculty or graduate student) with the University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Ontario). At one of the meetings in Waterloo, she mentioned something about I was not able to accompany her on this trip (as I had on various prior trips) because I was playing in a hockey tournament.

She told me on her return home that upon hearing that, the room fell silent. After a pause, one of the Canadians spoke up: “What? You mean mild-mannered Dick plays hockey?”

Rim Shot… End of story.


Haven Pell, February 06, 2020 at 9:01 am said:

The Mighty Moms teammates would have understood. It was a non-hockey person who didn’t. Thanks for a great story about your hockey experience.


Carter Lord, February 06, 2020 at 6:58 am said:

Another interesting story. More good writing. Succinct and to the point. Thanks

Raised in Florida, i missed the whole hockey thing. I have been sorry about it my whole life

They play more than you think down here now with indoor rinks. It no doubt misses the spontaneity, fun and pick-up games you were fortunate to experience

I have been involved in business with people from Minneapolis where hockey is almost a religion. I once saw my business partner hit slapshots with a puck made out of electrical tape at his young 10-year-old kids so hard that I told his wife she should call the police

It’s a new age we live in now. Kids can’t just go down to the pond or to the sandlot to play baseball anymore because of the climate of kidnapping and bad things that happen to innocent kids in which we live

Your times were better and more natural times for the kids.

Keep the great stories coming.


Haven Pell, February 06, 2020 at 8:50 am said:

Thanks Carter. Great image of the slapshots, electrical tape and police.


John Austin Murphy, February 06, 2020 at 10:42 pm said:

Hockey was for me, like it was for others who have commented, an addiction. I played (mostly bench) for a very successful high school team (LaSalle Academy in Providence). At Boston College, I had no chance of making the team, but tried out each year just for the ice time, and a chance to be directed, albeit briefly, by the legendary Snooks Kelly. Enjoyed your essay, particularly because I experienced first hand the coaching approach of Clarry when he was instructing me in the finer points of court tennis.


Haven Pell, February 07, 2020 at 4:05 am said:

What years were you an Eagle? They had some excellent teams in my vintage (64-68). I have a future story that includes Paul (the shot) Hurley (a BC star) during his PG year at Deerfield.


John Austin Murphy, February 07, 2020 at 7:20 am said:

Played against “The Shot” in high school. He was a true ankle breaker. I was an undergrad at BC from 1963-67. Then went on to get a MA there in 1969, and a law degree in 1973. The captain in my senior year was Jerry York, who went on eventually to become the coach. Back when I was at BC as an undergrad, Snooks prided himself on staffing his team almost entirely with “boys from the Commonwealth”, eschewing Canadians and others not from Massachusetts. However, I do recall two Rhode Islanders who became All-Americans at BC: Robert O. Tiernan, who later became a RI Congressman; and Jim Mullen, whose father was the coach at Hope High School in Providence.


Haven Pell, February 07, 2020 at 6:38 pm said:

We were of similar vintage and probably went to many of the same games, especially Beanpot Tournaments.


John Austin Murphy, February 07, 2020 at 7:37 pm said:

I remember a national championship match at Brown, I think in my junior or senior year of high school.

My first coach was Harvey Bennett, the goalie for the Rhode Island Reds. He and other great coaches like him spawned many truly great players. In many ways, Rhode Island was ahead of the other New England states in terms of youth hockey programs. I am sure you played with some of talented players produced by those programs.

Haven Pell, February 08, 2020 at 7:40 am said:

1965 Michigan Tech beat BC 8-2. My brother and I went. The St. Nicholas Hockey Club (Hobey Baker’s team between Princeton and WW1) continued to have an observer role on the game’s governing board.


John Austin Murphy, February 08, 2020 at 7:50 am said:

Small world for us lovers of hockey. I was there with my sister Anne (Brown/Pembroke 1955). She is a hockey fanatic.

I remember that the Michigan Tech goalie had a brother who was a hockey professional in the NHL.

[PS: My sister Anne’s son, Bill O’Brien, is head coach of the Houston Texans.]


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