“Let’s play hockey!” was an oft repeated phrase by kids growing up on the Canadian prairies. For me, a kid who grew up on a farm four miles from the village of Yellow Creek, Saskatchewan, that meant lacing up my skates and heading to the outdoor rink at recess with my classmates – boys and girls alike.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, hockey took a slightly different twist. Hockey pucks were expensive and had the curious habit of disappearing into snowbanks never to be seen again until spring thaw. So, frozen horse turds served as an admirable substitute in a game of barnyard shinny. When my older brother’s friends dropped by, play resumed on our private playground – the frozen slough in the midst of the Gryba bush. The Gryba family owned the mostly-uncleared piece of land across the grid road opposite to our farm but did not live there. Sheltered by an aspen grove, the frozen slough transformed into the ideal location for skating and playing hockey.
Layer. Layer. Layer – the secret ingredient to staying warm in frigid prairie winters. And wool. We wore woollen toques, scarves, sweaters, mitts and several pairs of socks. And a siwash sweater if you were lucky enough to own one. When you consider that cotton long johns and felt-lined boots we called “valyanky” were part of the ensemble, we were more than prepared to face the elements.
On days when friends would visit, we all would trudge through deep snow into the bush and select an area of the slough in which blowing wind had exposed the ice surface. Any remaining snow was quickly shovelled to the side, creating a rectangular ice rink. Then everyone plunked themselves down on a snowbank and proceeded to lace up their skates. And the hockey game began. The middle child of our family and the youngest of the boys, my brother Bobby, was the designated goalie. I on the other hand, the youngest sibling and a girl to boot, was the designated cheerleader. But being the least active of the bunch, my fingers and toes started to freeze and I soon went home.
Freezing was not an issue on the one occasion I was invited to visit the ice rink at my neighbour Bill’s place. Bill, whose nickname was Speedy, was my older brother’s close friend. The frozen slough on his farm wasn’t as big as the one in the Gryba bush, but it had one definite advantage. Speedy had built a hut in the bush near the slough. It came fully-equipped with a box stove and a log to sit on when lacing up your skates – the ultimate in luxury! Speedy earned his nickname from his rapid speech and unique skating style. Instead of graceful gliding, Speedy would charge down the ice like a bull on his skates much like Eddie Shack of the Toronto Maple Leafs. To prairie folks, there were only two NHL teams to cheer for – the Montreal Canadiens or the Toronto Maple Leafs. My entire family were Maple Leaf fans and Saturday nights would find us gathered around the radio listening to Foster Hewitt’s a play-by-play commentary on Hockey Night in Canada.
Our family didn’t own a television but several of our neighbours did. During the Stanley Cup playoffs, my dad, my brothers and I would rotate which neighbour we would visit to watch the playoffs on a snowy, black-and-white tv with only three channels, one of which was French. But it didn’t matter. We could actually see our heroes in action. And I knew them all. I knew their names, their numbers and the positions they played. I got quite a kick watching Eddie Shack and the unstoppable Saskatchewan-born goalie Johnny Bower who played without a goalie mask.
There were so many other talented players on the Leafs roster like Dave Keon, Ron Ellis, Bob Pulford and Tim Horton, but my favourite player was Frank Mahovlich. And my favourite place to watch the playoffs was at my friend Iris’s place. Unlike my mom who didn’t care for hockey at all, her mom would watch hockey with the rest of us. But she especially enjoyed the fights.
“Mom. MOM. Fight!” Iris would call out if her mom was in the kitchen. She rushed into the room, plunked herself down on the sofa and avidly viewed the action on tv. As soon as it was over, she would head back into the kitchen to resume preparing snacks for the guests.
The 1966-1967 season was an especially memorable one for me. The Leafs played the Canadiens in the finals. It was a fun time. It was an exciting time. It was a time when television was black-and-white, the NHL had six teams and the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup.