I’ve always been a huge hockey fan, and as long as I can remember I have always been intrigued by the game before indoor rinks and artificial ice. Old and new images alike of simple pickup games played on the frozen ponds of places like Minnesota and Quebec or even the frozen cranberry bogs of Massachusetts stir in me an intrigue and joy that is tough to describe in words. As someone who didn’t grow up playing hockey and who’s experience in the game consists of college intramural leagues and charity tournaments put on by sororities, this may seem a bit odd to the seasoned hockey player. Yet, from what little I’ve played of the indoor game versus the outdoor game, a game on natural ice on a cold winter afternoon with no lines or whistles or goalies and a lot fewer rules wins in my view. Why? There’s just something about playing outdoors that makes me feel that this is the authentic game of hockey; the way it was meant to be played.
Here in Ohio, the weather varies almost as much as is possible to. We’ll get a week or two of biter cold and snow, then it’ll get into the mid to high 40’s and everything will melt, only to have temperature drop again in a day or two and have all the snowmelt end up freezing (the roads here are awful in the winter). Those from Canada or the northern US states are spoiled (well, at least the pond hockey fanatics are) by their reliably cold weather every winter. Usually frozen skating ponds are good for about two weeks or three weeks of the year here in Ohio, so you better get out there while the ice is good. And when the ice is good, it’s a very special thing indeed. I often go to play at Blendon Woods Metropark in Columbus, where a good mix of seasoned players, older men and women, young kids, and young adults who never played growing up such as myself can all enjoy some friendly games till the sun goes down. No one’s competitive here; skill levels vary and pond hockey has far fewer rules to worry about than the indoor game. The better and more experienced players tend to be open to giving tips to the kids and other inexperienced players. Often times, its the kids that are the best ones out there! I’ve learned more about skating from eight and nine year old kids who were practically born on skates than anyone else. It’s funny to watch them totally skate circles around everyone else and score time and time again.
As the sun does go down and the frosty air turns even cooler, you play until you can’t see the puck anymore, despite pleas from your frozen toes and windburned face to get in your warm car. Once that moment arrives and you’re forced to trade your skates for a pair of winter boots, you feel a bit sad, almost as if the pond won’t be there again tomorrow. Hot chocolate or cider in the parking lot or around the fire pit with your newfound friends ends the day on the ice on a happy note, and you drive away eagerly awaiting your next trip to the pond. No bad calls by the refs, not getting enough ice time or wishing you had played better will ruin your evening like it might when playing competitive indoor hockey. And that’s why I feel pond hockey is so great- no pressure, less structure, and only pure fun. Isn’t that what a game is supposed to be in the first place?
Those who aren’t looking for a game of puck can still enjoy natural ice by just sticking to skating. If you’re skittish about a frozen pond or lake, many cities in Ohio have artificial outdoor rinks so you can get that feeling of skating outdoors without worrying about ice thickness. I enjoy skating the creek outside of my parents house when I go home to visit, albeit after checking the ice levels over the course of a few days. Skating anything with a flow like a creek can be risky, but thick ice on a portion of a creek without much flow can be safe if you’re certain of thickness. NEVER SKATE ON A FROZEN RIVER. Moving flow carries warm water and can affect thickness in several different spots in a small area. Although rivers and canals in some parts of the world can be safely skated (such as Canada’s Rideau Canal and Assiniboine River), Ohio’s rivers aren’t among them. Couple varying thickness with river current and a person can quickly find themselves through the ice and carried underneath, away from the hole they fell through. This is a deadly situation best avoided by not venturing out onto a frozen river in the first pace. While no ice is truly “safe” ice, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommends a thickness of at least four to five inches for ice fishing, or skating. Always remember this rhyme: “thick and blue, tried and true; thin and wispy, way too risky” when trying to decide if a natural body of water is safe enough to venture out on.
No matter if you choose an artificial outdoor rink or a nearby frozen pond, I encourage you to get out and enjoy the ice this winter, be it for hockey or just skating. It’s a fun activity that many people here in Ohio tend not to think of and can quickly become a winter tradition for you or your family for years to come.