Monday, December 5, 2011

Lace 'Em Up and Get Out on the Ice

It’s outdoor ice-skating season, and Chicago has several attractive rinks. I didn’t make it to any last season but will soon be lacing up the Bauers and heading to Millennium Park. Ice-skating is a great way to exercise and take one back to youthful days.

Millennium Park ice rink

My brother and I learned to skate at age 6 the old-fashioned way: our parents somehow found two pairs of hand-me-down skates (I remember one being from a second cousin), which our mother put on and pushed us out on to the ice. In those days, the ice was natural, having been “flooded” by the park district with no barriers. The season lasted as long as temperatures remained regularly below freezing.

We had each other to flop around with and be teased by a few girls in our class who were already accomplished skaters. By the end of the day, without help or lessons, both of us were making good progress gliding along, as opposed to “walking” on the ice. I don’t think it took more than a session or two to join the other skaters going counter-clockwise around the rink.

Originally, the rink featured a warming house that was essentially a shack with a hot stove in the center. Despite there being bars around the stove, one winter my brother somehow managed to stick his rear end through the wide space between the bars to warm his wet pants seat. He stayed too long and ended up with a burn on one of his cheeks. A modern brick facility replaced the old warming house shortly thereafter.

Watts Park Fieldhouse

As accomplished skaters with growing feet, we required new skates almost every year. One such shopping trip took us to Mages Sporting Goods in downtown Evanston on December 1, 1958. On the way, we heard on the radio about a huge fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago. Upon arrival, the store was buzzing with the news, and we were particularly struck by the fact that many of the children were 9 years old, our same age. The fire resulted in the deaths of 92 students and 3 nuns.

The very active 1958-1959 season would be the last one for my extended skating career. Warmer winters and switching to basketball resulted in very few days at the rink in subsequent years.

The park district sponsored senior and junior hockey leagues in its weathered wooden-boarded rink off the main rink. For us juniors, there was no checking or lifting the puck, so only the goalie wore pads. We hardly looked like today’s kids. Our team, the Silverstreaks (we pulled the name out of thin air), won the four-team championship, edging out the Blackhawks, Rangers and Sputniks. We missed the medals ceremony – nobody informed us about it – and but still collected the silver first-place medals. I have several weathered clippings showing season standings and scoring, including one with “1 0 1” for GOP Presidential candidate Fred Karger.

Hockey medal, 1959

Skating races were another popular event, with heats for several age groups. I won the semi-final for 9 year-old boys, partly by knowing the post position meant the shortest distance around the oval. Lining up there again for the finals, I broke fast at the gun but not fast enough; the boy next to me cut in front and fell, taking us both down.

Skating races, 1959 (I'm on far right)

For years I owned a pair of leather CCMs with steel toes, the fashion for hockey skates. I took them to college and skated in the public rink in the Chestnut Hill section of Boston, but that was pretty much it. The skates remained in the closet for a number of years, taken out for skating with our daughter at McFetridge Sports Center and a friend’s birthday party at a Skokie ice rink.

Marisa at McFetridge Sports Center

The opening of the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park in December 2001 provided a beautiful setting at an unbeatable price: free if you bring your own skates, $1 to rent a locker. As I prepared to resume skating again, I remembered something that bugged me in my youth. While gliding around the rink on weekends, I’d see old/older men in beat-up skates and vowed never to be one of them. My old CCMs would qualify me as just such a guy, so I headed to Sports Authority and purchased a pair of Bauer Impact 75s. They look exactly like the skates rented by the park district, which makes me look like an old dude in new skates. After my first time out, I learned to under-dress (coat goes in the locker) because one can easily work up a sweat.

Cold weather is expected this week, so now may be the time to go. Anybody out there care to join me and recapture a joy from your youth?

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