I can’t really remember attending elementary school. Instead, the classroom for my friends and I is a strip of asphalt behind an old duplex. Our very own road hockey “rink”. Maybe 30 yards long and 6 yards wide.
At one end a pair of old wellington boots mark the goal. At the other stands a rickety net of sorts, the base and posts held together by glue, wire and hope. Draped over the back is some heavy mesh, a precious gift from a local fisherman.
Sticks, 99 cents each, are selected with great care from the big barrel at the local store. They have to last. If the blade cracks or snaps, it will just be taped or nailed back into place until serviceable again.
Our games dominate fall and winter afternoons. In rain, sleet, pale sunshine or finger numbing cold, we would play until dark. Or until we heard the faint banging on a pot from across the field, Mom signalling it was time to come home for supper.
The rink could house four players at a time. Two attackers, one defenceman and a goalie. The best games occur when Glenn is in net, clumsy in leg pads fabricated from old cardboard boxes. But making save after save. Always clad in a replica Red Wings #7 jersey that is the envy of all of us.
2 on 1 rushes. Dekes. Give and go. Poke checks. Stack the pads. Toe drags. Experimenting with new moves, copying each other. And, on Wednesdays, if the rabbit ears would cooperate, squinting at a tiny black and white TV so the next day we could imitate our NHL heroes.
Saturdays are equally special. The games move to an abandoned tennis court and last for hours and hours. Kids from other parts of the neighbourhood would join in. The lucky ones would end up on Jimmy’s team. He is two years older than us and the owner of a wicked slapshot. Wandering into his line of fire is a not to be repeated mistake, as the ball leaves painful welts. Yet those, and other inevitable scrapes and abrasions, are just an accepted part of the entertainment.
Winter turns to spring, then summer. As the spirit moves us, we shift to pickup soccer, basketball or baseball. Or cover miles on our battered Mustang bikes, playing cops and robbers. Such freedom. Keeping fit and developing skills without even knowing it. Organizing ourselves, making up our own rules, solving our own problems along the way.
We were lucky back then. Today, the free play of 50 years ago seems little more than a distant memory. Things are so different now. Time has slipped by and caught us napping. Technology has exploded, ensuring precious hours spent each day on screen.
And children further ride a relentless merry go round of other activities, all guided by adults. Formal leagues and practices. Dance classes, music lessons, summer camps, power skating schools, sports academies. Opportunities for sure, but the list goes on and on. Adults rush to sign up their children, slaves to “enrichment” and results. Wear out their finances, perhaps fearing the child might miss out on something. Wear out their child as well, many of whom are so overstimulated they barely have time to rest, to breathe, let alone create and develop.
So which of the two eras provides the richer experience?
Whatever the case, I happily return, again and again in my mind, to images of that childhood rink. And to the words of a friend and teaching colleague. He tells me that “when we play, we become attentive and we learn.”
He is right.