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On Pandemic Pond

By Mike Toth

Maple Leaf Gardens and the Montreal Forum.


No brainers when it comes to the most hallowed arenas in Canadian hockey history.


But there's a tiny backyard rink you should probably add to that list.


Last week "Canada's hockey dad", Walter Gretzky, passed away at the age of 82. As every puck fanatic knows, Walter built the Brantford, Ontario ice patch where Wayne Gretzky took his first wobbly strides on his path to becoming "The Great One".


A few years ago, while working for NEWSTALK 1010 Radio in Toronto, I had the chance to interview Walter and, of course, the famous Gretzky backyard rink was part of our conversation.


"I get way too much credit for building that rink," Walter told me in his always-humble manner. "The truth is, I didn't want to drive Wayne all over town looking for ice. I also didn't want to freeze my butt off when I wanted to skate with the kids and it was nice to slip inside our kitchen for a coffee when I needed to warm up."


Who knew Walter's quest to avoid frostbite would end up producing the NHL's all-time scoring king?


Building a backyard rink is the dream of every Walter-wannabe hockey dad, and yours truly is no exception. Unfortunately, living in Toronto, most inner-city backyards aren't big enough to stretch your arms, let alone construct an ice pad. So the outdoor hockey exploits of my two sons and I have been played out over the years on Toronto's generous supply of full-sized shinny rinks.


This year, however, the world-wide pandemic put the kibosh on our shinny plans. To ensure social distancing, hockey was banned on the city's outdoor rinks - although public skating was given the green light.


Public skating is okay.


But after about a half-hour of going 'round and 'round in the same boring circle, you start to develop a "hamster on an exercise wheel" type of feeling.


It also reminds me of a long ago car ride with my mom and dad.


It's the responsibility of every maple syrup-blooded Canadian parent to teach their little ones to skate. I can still remember mom and dad dragging me to our local rink for a public skating session as I bawled in the back seat of the family sedan.


"But I don't wanna skate," I wailed. "I wanna play hockey!"


50 years later, I still "wanna play hockey". A few months ago, tugging the dog around for her one millionth Covid-inspired stroll, we came across a frozen creek in a wooded area not far from our home. We'd actually passed this pond a bunch of times before but, desperate to shoot the puck around, the light bulb finally went on. A few sweat-filled bouts of heavy shoveling later, and we managed to scratch out a pretty passable sheet of ice.


Like a lot of kids who grew up in the 60's and 70's, I played a ton of hockey in the great outdoors. I have so many fond memories of all-day shinny in the coal mining town of East Coulee, Alberta. That's where my grandmother lived and along with my hockey-loving Uncle Rick and cousin Greg, we'd spend hours chasing the puck as the snow-capped hills of the badlands framed the scene like an All-Canadian Christmas card.


Once in a while, we'd even get the chance to shoot on an actual goalie. The rink shack in the Coulee kept a musty old set of Johnny Bower-style netminder equipment on hand and a local kid named Big Mike would sometimes strap on the pads.


The only trouble?


Big Mike was a little afraid of the puck (Who could really blame him wearing such flimsy gear?) and would turn right around whenever the puck came flying towards him.


THUNK!


The frozen rubber would whack Big Mike right in his unprotected back and he'd hit the deck like he'd been picked off by a sniper.


"Stay square, Mike!" we'd all scream at the poor guy as he lay moaning on the ice. "Stay square!".


Give Big Mike credit.


He was one humongous human bruise, but Big Mike would always get back up and get square…..until the next dangerous dart came his way.


Unfortunately, there aren't any goalies to be found on our "Pandemic Pond".


But that's okay.


The most important thing is the amazing feeling of freedom you get while gliding across fresh ice after months of being cooped up because of Coronavirus.


My oldest son is a huge Maple Leafs fan and as he dekes out his old dad on the old pond, I'm sure visions of a dancing Mitch Marner fill his head.


My younger boy, meanwhile, loves the Habs and is more of a Brendan Gallagher guy.


Me?


As an old-timer, I'm partial to Darryl Sittler and Guy Lafleur. Although, to be honest, my current shinny abilities are closer to "The Flower" during his ill-fated New York Rangers comeback when Guy's lightning speed and his famous flowing locks were both beginning to fade.


But no matter your skill level, there's nothing better than playing fresh air hockey.


I'm sure Walter Gretzky would tell you the same thing.


But right now, there's a good chance Walter is busy gripping a hose and laying down a fresh layer of ice on the perfect frozen pond up in hockey heaven.






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