Skating for a Fall
If there’s one thing that’s fun to do in your spare time, it’s things that you’re already good at. During the winter, that thing for me is skiing. I have skied almost since I could stand, and if there is a hobby I could be said to be competent at, it’s downhill skiing. Although I don’t hunt for small cliffs to ski off anymore, or throw backflips in the terrain park while trying to keep my sagging pants from falling down like my teenage students, I’m still pretty good at skiing. It’s comfortable. I can show up at a hill and know what to expect. I can get myself down most any white-colored incline. I can rest fairly assured that I won’t do anything that will cause lasting embarrassment, such as losing control of my skis and taking out a giant inflatable can of Red Bull near the base lodge, or forgetting to dismount the chairlift and needing to be coaxed down by the liftee, or crashing and losing my hat and mittens in front of an entire women’s ski team.
Of course, all of those scenarios are back in play now that I have taken up snowboarding. Last season I fell more times in a single day than I did in decades of skiing. Most of those falls happened within speaking distance of the base lodge (some in the lunch line). But none were serious, and learning to snowboard made the mountain big again. It wasn’t comfortable — but it was exciting.
While it’s fun to keep doing what you know, the older I get, the more I see value in doing what you don’t. Not only does it keep you humble and make everyone else feel a heck of a lot better about not being the guy who keeps toppling over, but it’s a lot of fun to learn new sports, and it encourages you to keep growing. Having a “growth mindset” is one of the current buzz-trends in education, and I won’t tediously retread what every middle schooler nowadays must suffer through during fourth period, but the idea behind it — that we should approach life inquisitively — is one I solidly believe.
That desire to stay young has brought me to a lot of new sports in the last few years. I’ve run off the edge of a mountain with a hang glider strapped to my back. I’ve lowered the bar for everyone around me at several local driving ranges. I’ve tied into a rock climbing harness. I have even flown an airplane — legally — with no adult supervision. And of course I’ve terrified entire novice trails up at Cannon and Bretton Woods on my snowboard. I’ve loved every minute of it.
So it might have been that same adventurous spirit — or perhaps just frigid temperatures of two weekends ago that forbade anything else — which brought me indoors to try a further winter sport I’d never done. Two weekends past, I tried to skate on ice.
Though that’s misleading. Technically I have skated before, though “skated” is probably exaggerating what I was doing. Mostly I was tottering around the railings, windmilling my arms and lurching forward and back, like a drunk man trying to walk to the bathroom during a turbulent flight. The most recent of these experiences occurred while I was a college freshman. I’d tagged along with a friend who’d assured me, “Sure, it’s just free-skate. Super low-key,” while handing me a hockey stick. I arrived on the rink to find myself the required twelfth player or whatever it is in one of those ultra-competitive pick-up hockey games that is loaded with former Bruins prospects who’ve decided they’d rather be pre-med majors and quench their athletic thirst with intramural play basically one step below the NHL. I began by announcing my presence on the ice with a swift fall just before face off. Then I spent the next few periods weaving like a rudderless ship straight opposite where I’d meant to go. I was often seen to crash into the boards in places the other players had not visited in minutes. By the second period I was easily the most bloodied and bruised member of our grisly squad, and I hadn’t even come near another player. Meanwhile, despite the repeated blows I was taking, I perfected the art of clawing back on my feet by grabbing the boards like a drowning man hoisting himself back into his boat. At one point I did penetrate into enemy territory, and even crossed the blue line, but this was long after the final whistle had sounded and the others had left for the pub. Although it was a lot of fun to play on the same line as a young Sidney Crosby, I wasn’t asked back for another game.
That was 15 years ago. Since then I have avoided ice skating, mostly because I was busy during those years not making a fool of myself. But by February of this year my fiancee’s birthday was drawing close, and I wanted to take her out for something fun. Unfortunately taking her “out” was not an option due to the absurdly cold temperatures (it was -235 degrees, I believe, atop Mount Washington, which was the fourth lowest temperature recorded there on that day). But knowing that she’d enjoyed skating back in college, and knowing that because we were already engaged she’d be unlikely to back out once she saw me on the ice, we drove north to do something that you almost never get to do, even in winter: escape the cold by going into the ice arena.
The Fenton Chester ice rink in Lyndonville, Vermont was cheerful, cheap, and a balmy 24 degrees. Best of all, skating wasn’t nearly as hard as I remembered. In fact, it was fun. So much fun in fact that we made even grander skating plans for the next weekend. That is how I arrived at Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vermont this past weekend just in time to lace up my skates for the New England Youth Pond Hockey Jamboree.
The Cult of Youth Hockey
Of course I wasn’t there to compete. For one thing, I surely couldn’t have held my own as a skater. For another thing, peewee hockey in the United States is generally reserved for 11-12 year olds. Still, although my fiancee had told me that skating on Lake Morey was a popular winter pastime in the Upper Connecticut Valley, we were not prepared for the hundreds of cars we saw bulging from every nook or lot within a mile of the resort. They were SUVs mostly — plush Chevy Suburbans or Tahoes with Connecticut and Massachusetts plates, crowned by luggage compartments and festively adorned with these European-looking decals — red and purple crests, abbreviations suggesting preppy summer islands or sailing clubs. Up close they were youth hockey affiliations. They were vaguely Ivy League — things like DCT (“Darien Connecticut Tigers”), or British-sounding (“Newburyport, MA Wanderers”). We rented skates in the restaurant that serves the adjacent golf course during summer and then walked a short path down to the lake, where the action was. As we swung behind the backside of the resort building, a panorama of 12 swirling hockey games came into focus, each ringed by parents, coaches, and spectators. The rinks, which were smaller than normal rinks, had been cleared of snow on the near end of the lake, and each rink had a sign with a number on it, presumably for when the teams rotated through opponents, like hockey speed-dating. The balconies at the rear of the hotel looked right out on the scene, and it was clear that many of the players were booked in for the weekend. Railings and porches were draped with preppy-looking towels and scarves with the same crests and abbreviations as the cars. They have team towels, I thought. I couldn’t believe this. As we donned our skates, children no higher than my waist streamed past in lavish, bold-colored uniforms: matching socks, jerseys, shorts. Most children had not only their numbers but their names on their jerseys. Many parents were bundled up in team jackets sporting the same colors as their kids. The coaches had black, crisp-looking coats with things like “Assistant Coach Smellers” stitched on the lapels.
As a brief aside, why do coaches get to go by “Coach,” like they’re doctors or professors? No teachers ever get to be called “Teacher,” right? Why is it that lughead football coaches who lead kids through such complex growth experiences such as running into each other repeatedly are somehow conferred an honorary advanced degree, while measly teachers of AP calculus are not? I’ll paraphrase Frank DeFord: “The highest compliment that big-shot college coaches give each other is to say, ‘So-and-So isn’t just a coach — he’s a teacher.'”
“When they’re paid like teachers, I’ll believe it.”
Back to the ice. Where — pardon me for just a second — what an expense youth hockey must be! These children were better clothed than most college players. I went to an honest-to-goodness prep school and we had nothing so lavish. Our sports uniforms were almost humorously generic and often threadbare. They looked like they’d been picked out and ordered in bulk from a Eurosport catalog by the athletic director’s secretary, three secretaries ago. Even the jerseys worn by members of our hallowed boy’s varsity hockey team — many of whom played at top colleges or as out-and-out professionals — were blandly monochromatic and definitely did not have any embellishments like a player’s name. Were these players themselves once coddled peewees? Had they too been shuttled to a new state every weekend in SUVs like the president, put up in hotels like professionals, adorned in richly colored, personalized jerseys, (which they’d no doubt grow out of by midseason)? How much money was spent, really, for each roster spot! How much money hockey kids must cost!
While my fiancee and I skated away from the tournament toward the far end of the lake, we joked about which sports, should we decide to have children, we’ll steer our kids away from. Football was a no. Which, given our respective builds is probably not the worst idea for a child of our genes. We were divided on skiing (okay, just none of those snooty race programs), flying gliders (also okay, as long as my my wife-to-be is allowed to remain ignorant of certain components of it — such as details of any kind), Quidditch (we didn’t talk about this actually, but I’m banning it), gymnastics (although it would be fun to live life vicariously through my daughter), and competitive swimming (my fiancee, a college swimmer, banned this for mysterious reasons). And of course, it goes without saying, peewee hockey.
Although those coaches’ jerseys were pretty nice.
By afternoon the sun had warmed the ice for hours and temperatures had risen into the forties. As we were about halfway into our skate, we heard the roar of what sounded like a train whistle, and shortly afterward we got close enough to see that the rinks were empty as a Jeb Bush rally. Had the games already ended, or were they taking a lunch break? (A sumptuous, catered affair, no doubt.) Our answer came to us as trains of peewee hockey teams came skating desultorily toward us on the pond loop. None of the kids looked like they wanted to be doing this, but they were being herded by parents at the rear of each group who’d laced up their own skates and were urging them on by saying things like, “I know there’s no more hockey, but this is fun too.” Many of them — I shit you not — were drinking cans of beer, which had probably been supplied by tournament organizers, and had expressions on their faces that seemed to ask, “How the hell am I supposed to keep them busy for the next eight hours now?” Turns out the day’s hockey had been canceled because the temperatures had gotten so warm that the ice was cracking! It wasn’t bad enough to stop pond skating, but bad enough that players were boring holes in the rinks and were tripping more than skating. The games had been called for the day and I didn’t begrudge any of those parents one drink.
Lake Morey Skating
Each winter workers clear a 10-foot wide, 4.5 mile path around the edge of Lake Morey, one of Vermont’s prettiest. Parking could not be more convenient. It’s less than a minute off Interstate 91, twenty minutes north of Dartmouth College at the Lake Morey Resort. Skate rental is $10. Skating itself is free.
Outdoor skating is to indoor skating as the ocean is to a pool. It’s just way more fun, and not only because you’re doing more than making left turns. Besides the hockey kids, there was plenty of action out on the lake. There were countless ice fishermen who’d driven out to well-appointed dwellings in all-terrain vehicles and were busy boring into the ice with great augers, or staring at their lines, employing a skill and intelligence that is not apparent in any way from watching them.
As for Lake Morey, I highly recommend it. One lap around the lake took us over an hour and left my legs sore for days. Even with the hockey teams joining us, the loop was never very crowded, and there was plenty of room for faster skaters to pass. The scenery on the path was gorgeous: pretty lakeside homes and snow-covered woods. There are several summer camps along the shore, with tennis courts and dorm houses sitting idle beneath the snow. While there’s not much else in Fairlee, Hanover, just twenty minutes away, has an assortment of shops and restaurants. We had dinner and wandered through the Dartmouth bookstore after skating.
I even did tolerably well on skates — not one fall during the whole day. I like skating. I like any sport where you don’t have to actually work for every inch. Sports like running, or walking are achingly inefficient. I like sports where you can glide. In fact, I think skating on Lake Morey was so much fun that I’ll just have to go back at least once before the season is over. Or if the weather doesn’t cooperate, I fully intend to make a trip to the lake a yearly tradition.
Even if I’ll never be a hockey dad.