Growing Up [With Hockey]
Cheese cutters. These were my first skates. They were strapped onto my feet as I kicked and screamed. My parents had one motto: make them try every sport until they’re old enough to know they don’t like it. I’m truly glad they did this to Jeffrey – my brother – and I. Nearly 20 years later, hockey, and skating in general occupy a large part of my life.
Hockey has always occupied a large part of my time, especially during the winter. With pond/lake hockey at the cottage, and organized leagues in the city during the winter months, and ball hockey during the summer month. As kids we were all trying to be the next great NHL player and as the games played on TVs and radios around the house, we watched our favourite Habs player pass, shoot, and score.
When I was 5 years old, my parents put me into Power Skating at our local arena; a program to teach young kids how to skate. At this young age, I didn’t realize what I was getting into and was very against the idea of my parents abandoning me with strangers for a couple of hours. The tears soon faded away as we were taught how to become strong, fast, great skaters; this was Power Skating. As our skills improved with age, we had to move onwards and upwards to the world of house league and inter-city hockey.
The competitive world or hockey starts with house league hockey. Players are put into levels based on their age, starting with Novice, then working their way up through Atom, Peewee, Bantam, Midget, Juvenile and Senior. For those players that are good enough, there is also Junior level for those 21 and under, which include leagues such as the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League). These junior teams often feed into the AHL (American Hockey League) and the NHL (National Hockey League) and are highly competitive.
House league hockey is a great way to get to know all the other kids in your community through sport. There’s no hitting in these leagues, and everyone’s there to have a good time. Inter-city teams start to recruit the top players from these house league teams. These were fiercely competitive leagues; especially when your friends were on the opposing team! From inter-city level teams, players feed into either school teams, or into higher-level, Hockey Quebec league teams; you could only choose one. There are many other organized and non-organized leagues that exist however. Many of these leagues come from school hockey. In Montreal, athletic leagues such as the GMAA (Greater Montreal Athletic Association) governs 96 elementary schools, as well as 53 secondary schools.
Montreal is an exceedingly hockey rich city, playing host to the most successful National Hockey Team: the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs’ colors flow through the veins of the city, as evident in the playoff season we’re currently in! The Montreal Canadiens are one of the Original Six, and since their founding in 1917, have won a record 24 Stanley Cups. Many of the greatest players in the game have played for the Canadiens, from Maurice “Rocket” Richard, to Ken Dryden to Jean Béliveau to current day Carry Price – to name a few. The Canadiens are part of the Montreal community and continually give back to their devout fans. Since 2008, the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation has invested over $8 million in its BLUE BLANC ROUGE program. This program aims to bring better rinks to the less advantaged areas of the city. So far, they have been successful in creating 6 full sized, refrigerated, multisport rinks in Montreal. These rinks have special piping under the ice to keep them cooled and at the perfect temperature, even when warmer air arrives. Each rink has its own dressing room, and utility hut for a Zamboni. These rinks are always busy, bringing together people of all ages and skill level to play together. There are specific times for recreational skate and for hockey so every can get a chance to enjoy these great ice surfaces!
During the winter months, Montreal turns into any hockey enthusiast’s fantasy. During the fall months, parks around the city slowly transform into fields with boards waiting for cold weather to transform them into ice rinks. Montreal has roughly 275 of these free public outdoor hockey rinks during the winter. There’s no lack of organization either; the city takes care of clearing the snow and resurfacing the ice. Updates on the rinks’ conditions are continually updated to Montreal’s dedicated ice conditions website. Naturally, along with these rinks comes a little competition. While many love to play pickup hockey with the local skaters, there are larger Pond Hockey tournaments that are organized. These tournaments bring together teams from all over North America for some friendly 4 on 4 competitions. The World Pond Hockey Tournament, an annual international event, is held in New Brunswick, Canada.
For those who seek a little more organization, and a league that lasts more than a weekend, arenas can be rented out. These “leagues” are often referred to a “beer leagues” as they tend to be a group of guys that get together on a weekly basis to play hockey and drink beer. There are, however, official versions of these leagues. Participants can pay a seasonal fee to join a league and be placed onto a team. There are many resources for people looking to join these types of leagues.
For those we have a love for hockey, and not the cold, there’s an alternative; ball hockey. Originating on the streets, playing with the neighbors, this sport has evolved into seriously competitive leagues that play around the year. Similar to beer leagues, these ball hockey leagues are sometimes put together by organizations that help connect fellow ball hockey enthusiast into teams.
Overall, Montreal has no lack of hockey. From the number or outdoor rinks during the winter, to the various leagues, to playing host to one of the greatest teams in the NHL, Montreal has hockey running through the veins of the city. Looking back at some of my fondest memories as a kid, it’s always been those involving hockey that stand out for me – from flooding the rink to playing with my cousins. Playing hockey under the stars is one of my favourite things in life. There’s a particular peacefulness to it that I’ve never experience in my life; the dead of winter on the cold hard ice of the lake at my cottage; nostrils burning; breath visible; fingers and toes frozen. The moon and stars watching from above as the floodlights illuminate our game.