суббота, 3 ноября 2012 г.

The Graham Hockey League

By Susan Winslow

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.
~From the television show The Wonder Years

Trudging through the snow, calls of "Branch!" ring out through the woods as we crunch our way over the drumlins around Wenham Lake. We all know the shorthand for protecting our faces from the long prickly twigs that line the path that we know by heart even though it's covered in ice and snow. We're heading to Little Cedar for pond hockey, and the conditions are perfect.
Cedar Pond is the sister of Wenham Lake, famous for the pure, crystalline water that spawned a thriving ice industry into the 19th century until the invention of refrigeration. Queen Victoria is said to have been particularly fond of Wenham Ice, demanding a huge supply to cool royal refreshments for herself and her friends. The same bubbling springs that produced such rare, desirable Wenham Ice keep us off the wide-open expanse of the big lake. Locals know that the sheet of unbroken ice on Wenham Lake is pocked with deceptive chasms of open water covered by a thin sheen of ice where the springs keep the water from freezing solid. Little Cedar Pond is nestled beside the big lake like a teaspoon beside a bowl, carved out of the rocky New England soil by a mile-thick glacier thousands of years ago.

The cold, crisp air smells of winter and pine, and it's dark in the woods despite a brilliant blue sky. I'm in my early twenties, but I still feel a chill in these woods that has nothing to do with the February freeze. The history of this area is ancient, from the Agawam tribe that lived on the shores of Wenham Lake to the early settlers who survived the devastation of the Salem Witch Trials. John Greenleaf Whittier's poem, "The Witch of Wenham," is set in these woods, and the ghosts of the past seem to linger behind the thick pines and towering oaks.

But the laughter and chatter of our group keeps my imagination at bay, and we're choosing teams before we even reach the edge of the pond. Our teams are made up of players who range from beginners on borrowed figure skates to college and semi-pro athletes in Super Tacks, the current rage in hockey skates in the 1970s and 80s. What matters in the Graham Hockey League is sportsmanship, a sense of adventure and a love of the outdoors.

Little Cedar is just the right size for the games in the league, named for our family because we supply the most players. If Mother Nature had been a hockey mom, she couldn't have laid out a more perfect hockey rink. Surrounded by tall, graceful cedars and boulders just the right size for putting on skates and sipping hot cocoa, the pond is remote, quiet and breathtakingly beautiful. My younger sisters, Pam, Kar and Trishy, are in great demand when teams are chosen along with our friends, and my brother Rob is one of the stars. Our mom declines the invitation to join us, probably because she has already spent enough years in the heavy manmade cold of hockey arenas while my brother played youth and high school hockey. She is content to let us go, and she will listen with rapt attention to our stories later on.

Our dad had us on skates as soon as we could walk. Although he joked that he never got the five sons he really wanted, he raised four girls and one boy who spent many hours on the small rink he built in our back yard. We could all hold our own in a hockey game when most girls in that era were told to stand on the sidelines and cheer for their brothers or stick to learning figures. We called Dad our fearless leader, and he was happy to suit up with us to join our games, dazzling the crowd of younger players with his skill, and leaving newcomers staring after him open-mouthed as he whizzed by to score a goal.

If the planets are in alignment and the weather cooperates, pond ice is as smooth as a sheet of glass. The conditions must be right: weeks of arctic temperatures with no snow are the key to perfect pond ice. Days before the game, my boyfriend, Scott, would watch the weather and if it looked hopeful, calls would go out. And by Saturday morning, friends from all over New England would head to Little Cedar.

On this particular weekend, an unusually long stretch of frigid, snow-free days and nights produced the rarest of rare, the holy grail of pond hockey: black ice. Black ice is free of the frothy air bubbles that color it cloudy or light. Black ice is so translucent that leaves swirling toward the bottom are captured in their descent, suspended as if in a crystal ball. Hapless fresh water minnows and the occasional perch are frozen in stark relief against the murky depths, giving the ice an otherworldly look. Black ice is as smooth, hard and sleek as tempered steel. Skate blades etch clean white loops and spirals across the dark surface, leaving a trail that sparkles like diamonds in the sunlight.

The game is underway, and the air is filled with shouts of "Awesome ice," or "I'm open!" The steely clink of blades carving the ice mixes with the heavier clack of wooden hockey sticks fighting for the puck, punctuated by the crack of a slap shot or hoots over a good lift. Soon, jackets and hats are tossed into a huge pile at the edge of the ice despite the cold. Vivid reds, blues and greens in the pile add a welcome burst of color to a landscape locked in shades of gray for so many months. The game heats up and we fly up and down the ice, wheeling and spinning as the puck changes hands.

We are a no-check league, but it doesn't stop some good-natured jostling. My sisters and I can't resist taunting our brother as he skates circles around us, so fast, confident, and graceful on the ice. Secretly, though, we are proud of his skill and we laugh when our dad's team beats us and he comes over to chide us with his favorite line, "Shake hands with a winner." Our hockey friends become an extended winter family, reuniting when the ice is prime. We welcome anyone who wants to play, but one jealous girlfriend finds the game too intense and retreats to dry land with a feigned injury. Sulking on the sidelines, she christens my sisters and me "The Hanson Sisters" after the stars of the cult movie, Slap Shot. Although her remarks were probably not made with a compliment in mind, my sisters and I laugh and thank her because we're honored to be compared with real hockey players.

After the game, we break out the lunches, hot cocoa and snacks. Sitting around on coats, rocks and tree stumps, we dissect the game like broadcasters on the Sports Network, reliving the highlights and teasing each other over less-than-stellar moves. It doesn't matter if we're executives, college kids or teenagers, we're all out there for the love of the sport, the camaraderie, and the wonderful memories we created on those picture perfect winter days.

A friend took a photo of my dad with my brother, my sisters and me in our sweats and hockey skates on one of those extraordinary black ice days. Over thirty years later, it still brings back the joy of the game and the boundless freedom of flying across the ice, hockey stick ready, in hot pursuit of the puck. It would have been so easy to just hunker down and ride out the winters inside during those years, but I'm so glad we didn't. The memories from those carefree days and wonderful games have become more precious through the years.
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