I don’t know why I responded. I don’t know why I responded so enthusiastically.
It was around midnight and I felt a shake on my shoulders while I was buried deep in sleep and among my blankets.
It was a December evening in 1975. In the darkness and in my sleeping stupor, I could barely discern the figure of somebody slightly smaller than I, but who looked similar – younger brother Tim. “Get up. Let’s go,” he ordered.
In recent weeks, us four brothers had been playing hockey endlessly on the farm pond. It was a fever we couldn’t cure. And Tim, 12, and I, 15, had caught it badly. It was worse than the soon-to-arrive disco fever.
So I got up, jumped into the long underwear and winter pants, buttoned up a flannel shirt, found my parka, grabbed my skates, and headed outside. Tim beat me by two steps.
Our farm dogs, “Junior” and “Pups,” stirred in the porch and came outside. Our unusual nocturnal timing caused them consternation. They had options: 1) greet us with a whimper and a walk-by rub: 2) bark out a warning cry, or 3) sink their chompers into our legs as fresh available protein. They chose #1 then retreated to their still-warm old blankets. “Two hockey nuts,” Junior would have muttered if dogs could talk.
I remember that it was cold, but not unbearable – which actually describes Manitoba for most of the winter. The pond was a ¼ kilometre from our yard – just a good walk for the skating to come.
We ducked into Dad’s shop garage and plugged in a power cord. It was our great innovation for the hockey rink – lights. In fall, older brother Dave had obtained a long power cable, threaded it through tree branches, and then rigged it from bank to bank on our farm dugout. Youngest brother Ron had helped.
Dave wired two light sockets to the power cord, held it up by a rope strung high across the rink, and magically, we had night-time hockey capability.
Our rink bordered a country road. Occasionally, we’d hear a horn honk from passing neighbours. Or fans?
We had cleared the ice and played earlier that day. With hurried fingers, we got our skates on, grabbed our stashed sticks, and began to skate warm up circles. Another hockey session began.
We took shots with a softer puck-size rubber ball. It rolled along the less-than-perfect ice and it was quite forgiving to the goalie.
I did fashion goalie pads once, making a pad “sandwich” out of cardboard, a burlap grain bag, and an old army blanket cut in foot-wide strips. I sewed them together with used skate shoelaces, but alas, they did not work well. When damp, they became heavy and almost pulled my pants down.
Our rink was neither big nor fancy. The cleared snow served as foot-high edges. The area was about 30 f wide by 50 feet long. At the one end, which had the most light, we had our chicken wire goal net – carefully engineered to National Hockey League standards. We would not have to re-learn dimensions once we made it to the big leagues.
The script with Tim and I was always the same – I played goal with him as the shooter. Let me correct that. I was Tony Esposito and he was Guy Lafleur.
I did have a goalie stick and my well-worn baseball mitt snagged Tim’s shots. He regularly shot high to my glove side because that’s what Mr. Lafleur did. I caught some. The “save” always felt good.
A few years later, I caught a Blackhawks game in Chicago. Afterwards, my Chicago college buddy said we should go to the player’s entrance. We had hardly walked over when Mr. Esposito walked out. What!
I fumbled for my program, my buddy grabbed a pen, and I blurted out that I played on the farm ponds and that I used his name and his style.
“You must be Canadian,” he said smiling and signed “Tony O.” I was thrilled. I carelessly lost his autograph.
After a good hour; occasionally changing roles, Tim and I put the boots back on and we began the trudge homewards. The stars were bright, the snow glistened, and the world was silent.
The exercise had kept us warm – and for many years, slim. Our hockey fever had mildly subsided.
In the days the followed, the school Christmas break arrived. Is there a better time of year? We’d often have the four brothers out on our humble rink (hey, two teams of two) and we’d play for hours. We’d zip to the house for food, then go back and play more. We couldn’t shake the fever. Incurable.
Tim now says we were certifiably hockey crazy. The NHL matches against the touring Soviet teams those years made hockey even more interesting.
A decade ago, I attended a banquet in Calgary for the late Harley Hotchkiss, then a Calgary Flames owner.
Prior to the ceremony, I spotted Gary Bettman, the NHL president. I introduced myself and we chatted. I told him of those pond hockey glory days. He was cordial and asked if I was a good goalie.
“Of course I was,” I answered brashly. “However, the Buffalo Sabres never phoned me.” They were my favourite team.
“Well, with all due respect, the Sabres did well with Tom Barasso,” Mr. Bettman said. I couldn’t argue.
Most pro players mark their best times and their career peak with a Stanley Cup win. For Tim and I, our best hockey times were played out on the farm pond of long ago. And that mid-night escapade may have been the best of those.