On golden ponds

Chilly childhood days forged warm memories

By Matt Pepin
Globe Staff / December 31, 2009

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Sylvan Lake is about halfway between Calgary and Edmonton in the Canadian province of Alberta, and pretty much from the time it gets cold until the time it isn’t, the little town with 1,500 residents plays hockey on its namesake body of water.

“Even when it was slushy, we were still skating on it,’’ said Bruins defenseman Derek Morris. “We would play on it until they kicked us off.’’

For Morris, Sylvan Lake was where he got hooked on the game. For fellow Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, it was the Vah River in Slovakia. For left wing Daniel Paille, it was a manmade rink near his school in Welland, Ontario.

Outdoor hockey in some form is the common thread running through virtually all levels of organized hockey. It is to hockey what Wiffleball is to baseball, or what playground hoops are to basketball.

“It’s huge,’’ said Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, whose first exposure to hockey was on neighborhood ponds behind his father’s and grandfather’s homes in Franklin. “I grew up on a pond. That’s where you really learn to love the game, playing outside all day long, you learn all your skills and really the true meaning of fun.

“It doesn’t matter if you get scored on, nobody yells at you, you don’t really have to forecheck or backcheck, you just go out and have fun. You do what you want.’’

The opportunity to play the game both outdoors and at its highest level in the NHL’s Winter Classic at Fenway Park tomorrow has had players thinking about the good old days back home.

“It’s going to be amazing,’’ said Morris. “It’s going to bring you back a little to your childhood.’’

Except, maybe, for Bruins left wing Milan Lucic.

“It’s funny, everyone is asking me this, but growing up in Vancouver, it’s a warmer climate, so I didn’t really get to, you know, I never skated outdoors,’’ said Lucic, who has been sidelined by an ankle injury and is doubtful for the game.

Here are memories some of the people involved with the Winter Classic have of those halcyon days.

ZDENO CHARA: There was no need to make plans with his boyhood pals in Trencin, Slovakia, where Chara, the Bruins’ burly defenseman, grew up.

“Every weekend, we just knew that’s where we were going to meet up,’’ Chara said.

They’d play for two or three hours at a time on frozen lakes or the Vah River, which had ice solid enough to support two teams.

“It was just for fun,’’ said Chara. “We’d play four-on-four or five-on-five, with no goalies, and we just had small nets. It was pretty high-scoring games.

“As kids, we did it a lot. It was always fun to go outdoors and play some games outside on frozen lakes or frozen rivers. You can’t beat that atmosphere. It’s something that stuck with you, and I’ll never forget that. And now to be playing an outdoor game in the NHL, it’s going to be very special.’’

DEREK MORRIS: At Sylvan Lake, there was a place for skaters to get hot cocoa and a small shack where you could get your skates sharpened. At any given time, Morris says, there would be 40-50 skaters on the ice.

“I had a real close group of friends growing up,’’ he said. “There were 13 of us. We all went to the same school, and we’d bring our sticks, gloves, and skates to school and go from school down to the rink, go up for dinner and do our homework, then go back down. So we spent a lot of time playing outdoors.’’

While Morris had his regular group of pals, the games were open to all comers. No divisions, no age groups, no schedules. Just show up and play.

“It’s different, because when you’re put on an outdoor rink, it’s not just regular age groups,’’ he said. “You’ve got everyone from 6 to 15 to 30 out there, so we all played together, and at times it got intense, but I think when I was younger, you just kind of played and loved it.’’

Several of the Sylvan Lake regulars went on to decent hockey careers in the juniors and minors, according to Morris, who has played more than 800 career NHL games and notched more than 350 points.

“A couple guys had brief stints up and down in the NHL,’’ he said.

“My friends back home still love the game. Obviously, they’re Canadian, so they love the game and they love playing outdoors. So they’re still always outdoors playing when they get an opportunity when they’re not working.’’

DANIEL PAILLE: The place for pond hockey in Welland, Ontario, was only about five minutes from the house in which Paille was raised.

“The pond wasn’t really named,’’ said Paille. “It was just like a ditch and someone just put water all over it.’’

Paille knows both extremes of outdoor hockey. He played in the Winter Classic in Buffalo when he was with the Sabres in 2008. While that is a special memory to him, so, too, are the countless hours on the outdoor rink back home.

“Anybody in the neighborhood who wanted to play just came out there and played,’’ he said. “Everyone just had a good time with it.

“It was great. You could just skate all day.’’

PETER LAVIOLETTE: The Flyers coach played outdoor hockey as a boy in Franklin and has just about done it all in the sport. He played 11 seasons of pro hockey, played on and coached Olympic teams, and led the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006. He is also a former Bruins assistant and was head coach of their Providence affiliate.

But seeing two young skaters get their first taste of the game in its purest form was a huge thrill.

“My boys actually just played pond hockey - they’re 11 and 10 - for the first time last year,’’ said Laviolette. “We’d been down South a lot, and we went up to New Hampshire and they got to play some pond hockey and they were like, ‘Dad, this is great!’ ’’

Laviolette, 45, can’t wait for the chance to be part of hockey in a venue so near and dear.

“I grew up in Massachusetts, so Fenway Park to me is one of those buildings with so much history,’’ he said. “To get an opportunity to play a game when you’re looking up and you see 40,000 people and the Green Monster and everything else, it’s pretty special. I’m happy and fortunate to be here.’’

CAM NEELY: Neely, the Hall of Fame forward who played 525 games for the Bruins from 1986-96, grew up just outside of Moosejaw, Saskatchewan.

“We had a lot of outdoor hockey, a backyard rink where dad sat outside with the hose, and there’s your ice,’’ said Neely. “Skate all day. We never got yanked off the ice, just when it was dark, so this certainly brings back memories of skating outside.’’

TERRY O’REILLY: As a player, O’Reilly scored 204 goals and had 402 assists for the Bruins from 1971-85. As coach, O’Reilly guided the Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals in 1988.

As a boy, however, O’Reilly played a much different game in Oshawa, Ontario. While the city lies on the shore of Lake Ontario, and he played some there when the conditions were right, it was on the Oshawa Creek that he spent most of his time.

That made for a whole new game, because the creek had curves. Finding enough players was never an issue.

“There were five boys in my family, so we didn’t need too many more,’’ O’Reilly said. “On weekends, we would get out there first thing in the morning and skate until it was dark. We’d skate right through snowstorms. You’d see the puck sliding underneath 2 or 3 inches of snow, but we would just keep going.’’

The climate was perfect for hockey - and had other benefits, too.

“A couple of times, after a heavy freezing rain, I’d put my skates on and skate to school,’’ O’Reilly said.

RAY BOURQUE: The Hall of Fame defenseman played 1,518 games from 1979-2000 for the Bruins, then won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. He attributes some of his success to outdoor hockey as a youth in Montreal, where there was ice for a solid three months each year.

“We’d go out there with skates or boots on, with a tennis ball or a rubber puck, we’d go out and work on our skills without really knowing you were doing it,’’ Bourque said.

He also thinks being left to his own devices had huge benefits.

“Before anything was structured or organized, that’s where we all learned to skate,’’ Bourque said. “Everything’s so structured now, and the kids don’t really have a chance to skate outdoors because the winters or the conditions are a little different. Everything right now has to be organized, with a coach and a team, so it was kind of neat growing up that way.’’

Tomorrow's forecast
The National Weather Service is calling for a 30 percent chance of rain/snow and a high of 38 for tomorrow’s Winter Classic at Fenway Park. If there is heavy rain, the game will be postponed until Saturday.

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