Every winter, the males in our house waited for the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay to freeze, my dad for the ice fishing, my brother and me for the equally stupid pursuit of Bay Hockey. Although Ron once played in a hockey league which held games on an outdoor rink, it didn't matter when he met the rest of us on the ice in front of our house.
Our sport was unlike hockey played in stadia or in adult or youth leagues. The number of players was determined by how many showed up. Goals consisted of rocks or stocking caps placed on the ice. Boundaries were defined by obstacles, such as the shore to one side and pressure cracks to the other, though if the season was young and there were no pressure ridges, a skater could conceivably take the puck to the other side of the Bay in order to escape an opponent. We wore no pads and had no goalie because nobody wanted to play that position. We also had the danger of falling through the ice, in which case the highest priority was to save the puck. A frozen player could always go home to thaw, but a puck lost through the ice could not be retrieved until the next summer.
The first game of the season always began the afternoon once we noticed the Bay had frozen. We usually discovered it while waiting for the school bus, and when we returned from school all the neighborhood boys would gather up their equipment and sneak out onto the ice before their mothers figured out what they were doing. Our conversation usually went like this: "Mom, we're going outside to play."
"Where are you going?"
"We might shoot some hoops or see if Matt wants to go sledding."
Once in the garage we grabbed our sticks, puck, and skates from their hiding places and ran down to the ice.
We kept to the silver water, where falling through wouldn't put us in over our heads. As we grew older the likelihood of falling through increased with each added pound of weight. Whenever we fell due to a good hard check, trip, hook, or merely by skating incompetence, spiderweb cracks radiated from the spot where our butts hit the ice. After the game there would be dozens of these spiderweb cracks all over the rink.
Naturally the game lasted only long enough for one mother to look out the window at us playing and begin calling the other moms. Usually it was our mom who called the game, whereupon we would get lectured. It usually began with, "What were you thinking?"
"Nothing." It was a nice, tightly constructed, accurate response.
We would then receive lecture 47 about the dangers of falling through the ice and dying from pneumonia. She never mentioned drowning, which seemed to me a more serious problem. In all my years of playing Bay hockey I do not recall anyone catching cold, much less pneumonia. And nobody drowned either. However, during one game early in the season somebody made a pass so far in front of his target the puck slid past the silver and onto the green tinted ice, where the underlying water was at least twenty feet deep. We made Ron retrieve it because he weighed the least. He crawled all the way to the puck, the ice creaking with each movement he made. The rest of use forgot to breathe. When Ron got close he used his stick to cradle the puck toward him, then crawled back to us. Later in the game, probably because Matt hooked his stick between blade and boot, Ron Dohm fell through about twenty feet from shore. He didn't save the puck.
Many times during games we dug holes through he ice with the back of our blades in order to drink Bay water. We chipped away until a small fountain appeared. Then we got on our knees and drank. The water tasted cold and clean. I would rate winter Bay water better than water from the garden hose, and certainly far above tap water.
Bay hockey only lasted as long as there was good ice in front of our house, although with large patches of bad ice, we would play Bay hockey obstacle course. When the ice broke up we'd have to seek other pursuits.
One year as March winds blew the ice out toward Lake Michigan, Ron, cousin Billy, and I used the ice floes as rafts in a northern Michigan version of Huck and Jim. We grabbed poles and poled our makeshift rafts down to Matt's house to see if he would join us. Unfortunately his mom saw us first and wouldn't even let him go outside. We waved to him watching us from his bedroom, his nose and hands pressed against the window, and he waved back. Either that, or he flipped us off.
Unfortunately, Ron chose a pole more suitable for use as a walking stick than a raft pole, which proved to be his undoing when the waves took him out in water too deep for him to reach the bottom with his stick. He tried to use it as a paddle, but that didn't work either. Fortunately I had grabbed a ten foot piece of metal conduit, so Billy and I had to rescue him. Soon we had three kids on an ice floe that was more structurally suited to hold, say, none. We poled back home and went inside. Not only did we not get in trouble, but my mom took pictures.
When the weather grew warm we put away our skates, mittens, long underwear, jackets, sticks, and electrical tape and turned our attention to more safe activities, such as taking Matt's sailboat out during high wind warnings. But that's another story, involving minor elements such as a Coast Guard helicopter, a megaphone, and trying to dock while going against the wind.
Larry currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He says: "Since my previous piece (The Theory & Practice Of Cherry Fighting) my wife was transferred to Salt Lake City, home of the 2002 Olympic scandal. Since the local basketball team is being locked out, we've been watching IHL action. You can e-mail Larry at: email@example.com.