The month of February always takes me back to my childhood when my twin brother Tim and I would spend nearly every waking non-school hour on the outdoor hockey rink in the middle of Talbot Park, just down the street from our family home. I know I’ve written on more than one occasion about hockey, but it was an important part of our lives growing up in Leaside. And living just a stone’s throw from Talbot Park made playing hockey very convenient. I also think my mother enjoyed having Tim and me out of the house – and out of her hair – for hours on end, particularly on weekends.
Let me set the scene for you. Back when we used to have real winters, when there was lots of snow from November to March, and subzero temperatures for much of the season, the outdoor hockey and pleasure rinks in Talbot Park were a big deal. In the late 60s and early 70s, it was quite a facility. The hockey boards back then were blue, with three-panel rounded corners, and lines of overhead lights strung across the ice every 10 feet or so. In later years, light was provided by the big bright lights high up on poles used to illuminate night games on the big baseball diamond. Simple iron goals were embedded in the ice at either end. Chain-link fencing above the boards ensured that kids and families skating on the circular pleasure rink next door were not beaned by errant pucks shot over the boards. The lights usually were extinguished at 10:00 p.m., likely so the families living nearby could sleep free from the cacophony of hundreds of slapshots hitting the boards all day long and well into the evening. If you happened to be wandering through the park after the lights turned off, you might see the lonely Parks and Rec employee dutifully flooding both rinks.
For Tim and me, a typical Saturday went something like this, provided we didn’t have a house league game at Leaside Gardens. We’d get up at first light, tie up our skates in the basement, don our winter coats, hats, and mitts, and then clomp up the stairs and out the back door. Then, our sticks in hand and a few pucks in our pockets, we’d tiptoe down Donegall Drive to Talbot Park. We’d then literally skate down the big hill and glide as far as we could on the iced-over grass until we reached the pleasure rink, and then, our final destination – our happy place – the hockey rink. We were often the first skaters on the ice. We’d wheel around the rink taking shots and working on our passing and stickhandling. We’d also make countless unscheduled excursions outside the rink to retrieve pucks we’d shot over the boards and into the deep snow beyond. I cannot tell you how many pucks we lost in the snow. At that age, I could not count that high.
Eventually, the rink would fill up with other younger and older kids until we had enough to choose sides, and then it was game on.
We’d grow hungry around noon – though I remember always being hungry in those days – so we’d reluctantly clomp home, still in our skates, have lunch, and go straight back down to the park. We’d repeat the procedure for dinner and play hockey in the park until 8:00 p.m. before dragging our weary carcasses, frozen and frostbitten, back home again. Why did we quit at 8:00 and not 10:00 when the lights turned off? Well, the Leafs played most Saturday nights (still do), so we’d rush home early to watch the game. Yes, it was all hockey, all the time. Friends who lived near Trace Manes Park would repeat the same ritual and play hockey all day on the outdoor rink there.
I truly believe the hours spent playing shinny on the Talbot Park rink forged and entrenched whatever modest hockey skills I like to think I still have and use today 50 years later. Leaside has produced quite a few NHL hockey players over the years, Paul and Steve Gardner, Greg Theberge, Tom Edur, and Terry Caffery among them. I suspect that they all spent hours and hours on Leaside’s outdoor rinks, too. Those were the days.