Must have been about 8-9 years-old, an obvious step down from teenagerhood. I used to walk about five cold blocks in -20 Winnipeg winter to the rink at the nearest community club. The two boarded rinks were usually in use, but there was an open pleasure rink where many would go and play makeshift ‘games’, especially pre-adults.
In those days, shin pads were a luxury and rather obvious if you wore them over your pants, usually held up by sealer rings. So kids my age went without unless we were on actual teams at the community club.
In those days, I was most interested in playing goal and my heroes were Plante, Sawchuck, Worsley, and Glenn Hall. It was a tough life for NHL goalies in the pre-mask era (before Plante pioneered masks). They would get cut up; their faces resembling Frankenstein’s monster’s mug with all those occasional quick game stitch-ups, which sometimes even halted games. It was a rough life–Glenn Hall used to throw up before games. I guess it’s a little unnerving to have players like the Rocket bearing in on you and frozen rubber coming your way, especially via 60+ mph slapshots.
Back to the story. I was an only child who sometimes craved attention which showed up in wanting to play goal in pick-up games, and wanting–like every other red-blooded prairie boy–to stand out in whatever game–by being tough, strong, and maybe even heroic.
This day I’m describing, there weren’t any kids my age around at the pleasure rink, but I attached myself to a couple of teens (boy and girl 15-16ish) and some others in a pickup game with a real puck. I played goal for them sans shin pads, and took a number of hard shots on the knees and shins. I remember the girl was pretty and maybe I wanted to impress her with my hockey heroics, taking shots for the team. She came over to me a couple of times and asked me if I was ok after taking several shots which hurt like hell. I said I was fine, though there must have been some tears showing. We played, me happily, until it got dark early and turned even colder before calling it quits.
I limped home with my wounds, but happy that I had impressed these older kids with my goaltending heroics. It felt good at home to sit in front of the old furnace grate warming my frozen legs, but feeling happy that I had stopped a lot of pucks, and won the brief attention and solicitude of that never-seen-again teenage girl.
The pain per se lasted for days afterward. And I vowed I would never play in the NHL if this was what a goalie’s reality and sacrifices were anything like, never mind the constant risk of facial injuries.
But be that as it may, once–on one frigid Saturday afternoon in Winnipeg–yes, I did experience all the pains and pleasures of an ephemeral hockey love.