By Michael Talbot, CityNews.ca
For the third day in a row I woke up with a childlike exuberance, buttered a mildly burnt piece of toast, swigged from a carton of orange juice, and headed out to High Park, aching back and legs be damned.
The outdoor rink is a 20-minute walk from my house, and my mind often wanders to surprising and infrequently visited places while I attempt to grimace sudden squalls out of reality.
Today I was reliving the somewhat painful memory of my last game of competitive organized hockey. It was 18 distant years ago. I was a pimply, pugnacious 17-year-old, 170 pounds — a lanky, penalty-prone right-winger for the Jr. C Chippawa Merchants of the OHA. Through the sheer blinding menace of raging testosterone and an equally powerful longing for acceptance and recognition, I had adopted the role of the team tough guy — an unenviable job that I relished, and at times dreaded, with equal vigour.
Thanks to my long reach, natural ambidexterity, and countless hours of practice on my basement heavy-bag, I more than held my own through most of the season. Like the majority of my glove-dropping peers, I won some and lost some, but during the last game of our ill-fated playoff run I was unceremoniously humbled.
I squared off late in the third period with a 20-year-old brute on the hated Dundas Blues. I was unfamiliar with my opponent’s fighting style and after shedding our gloves and helmets I erroneously latched on to his right arm, unaware that he was a proficient southpaw. I was quickly reminded of my tactical mistake when a torrent of blinding left hands peppered my head and face, knocking me off balance. I struggled to remain on my skates and managed a few meager blows in return, but once again lost my footing, after which my opponent finished me off with a staggering bomb that triggered an orchestra of bells and high-pitched rings that only I was privy to.
I was hurt, no doubt, but skated off the ice smiling, unwilling to offer my rivals an ounce of satisfaction.
My opponent suffered a broken hand, compliments of my welted cranium.
It was a long, cold bus ride home that night. A few of my teammates playfully ribbed me. A few more offered nods of respect, knowing that despite the outcome, I had once again gone into the trenches for my team.
When the next season rolled around, I decided I had had enough. I may have worn my shiners like a badge of honour and got a thrill out of my small-town notoriety, but in the end, it was all extremely stressful and I suffered no delusions that a career in hockey was a viable option.
I stored my equipment and headed off to university, a washed up tough guy with bruised knuckles and a handful of glory stories under my belt.
Now I’m 35, my back aches in the morning. My once sinewy physique has grown soft over the years.
Despite my less-than-Olympian condition, I’m in love with hockey again.
The days of pecking at my pre-game meals with a cluster of butterflies in my stomach are over. I don’t lay in bed with a sense of impending doom. I’m not worried about whether the square-jawed maniac staring me down is a righty or a southpaw. I’m not thinking about coaches, referees, scouts, or parents. I’m not trying to prove anything or impress anyone. I’m just having fun, like I did when I was a kid.
In fact, I am a kid again.
I’m addicted to shinny, and I’m not alone.
Toronto boasts 48 outdoor rinks and thousands of unique characters from all walks of life play hockey on them daily.
The games vary in skill level — some are slow and sloppy, others are fast, sometimes choppy, but rarely chippy. Behaviour is kept in check by an unwritten code: No body contact, keep the sticks down, and don’t raise the puck. It’s simple and it works.
Kevin, 40, shows up at High Park with a few of his workmates. They’ve decided to get a quick skate in during their lunch hour.
They’re winded fairly quickly, but share the tell-tale glow that chasing a frozen disc around inspires.
“It’s great exercise,” he notes, sniffling. “It’s good to get outside and I grew up playing hockey.
“Toronto is great for having all the outdoor rinks and you can come out at lunch time or after work and have a skate and get some good exercise.
“This is like when I was a kid and my dad made a rink in the backyard and you just go out and skate around, there’s no competition you’re just having fun….later on when hockey got serious it didn’t get fun anymore and now it’s back to fun again.”
The fact that the experience is free doesn’t escape one of his equally winded, unabashedly frugal co-workers.
“You usually have to pay to play and this is free,” he stresses while untying his skates. “You can come out any time you want and play shinny, it doesn’t cost you anything. And that’s fantastic, and the city of Toronto has so many outdoor rinks that you pretty much have your pick, they are excellent.”
The boys head back to work, but they’re quickly replaced by a new slew of players.
The ice is littered with sticks and for a second I’m reminded of the wild brawls from my Jr. days.
But there’s no animosity in the air, we’re just picking teams.
Each player throws his stick into a pile at centre ice, and someone randomly tosses them to one side or the other. You find your stick and your new teammates, and the game gets underway.
Goalies are a rare privilege in the world of shinny, so to make things a bit more challenging we decide that you must ping a post to score. The game can go for quite some time without a goal, and the focus is on crisp passing and smart play-making.
Klim, 18, is new to hockey. He started playing in December. He’s a little wobbly on his skates but he’s been coming out quite a bit lately and his confidence is rising. He’s teamed up with Jim Dolmage, who is 65 and has been playing hockey longer than Klim has been alive. There’s decades between them, but as rink rat Greg Majster notes, shinny brings all sorts of people together.
“The thing about shinny that is different than organized hockey is that it’s open to anybody,” he says during a rare timeout. “You come out here and you have all levels of play and all ages too…There’s something about shinny that is such a great equalizer.”
After about 40 minutes of straight play, Dolmage, who is a rock on defence, calls it a day and I follow him to the dressing room for a quick interview.
“I’m 65, so I tend to be older than most on the ice but I’ve never had a problem with acceptance or getting along with anyone,” he explains.
“I played old-timers hockey for years, but nothing organized now,” he says while trying to catch his breath. “You can’t beat this, once you’re doing this stuff the rest pales in comparison to me.”
I head out and play for another hour or two before calling it a day.
I’m cold, wet, and sore. My heel is blistered. But as I walk home, I feel content.
I got my fix, and I’ll be back out again before I know it.
Trading passes, instead of punches.