Concrete and ice are similar in alot of ways. They’re both hard surfaces that can be smooth or bumpy. They can also both be skated on. Ice requires skates; a finished concrete floor requires warm cotton socks.
The floor in our basement was finished concrete. The stairs came down almost in the middle of the basement, just to the right of “center ice.” Center ice is the proper phrase because my older brother (and I to a much lesser extent) painted the floor to resemble various rinks. The greyish-brownish glint of the concrete remained but we painted blue lines, and the center ice area as well as the goal area. We used various paints, and permanent markers, and once even tried crayon but that didn’t work as well because our socks got stuck on the wax and we couldn’t slide in our “skates”.
At one time the floor looked like Chicago Stadium. Another time it looked like the ice of the Minnesota Northstars. Still other times it represented St. Louis, Montreal and New York and once even had an “All-Star” look as the center ice circle contained multiple team crests around the periphery. We didn’t have to use any type of paint remover to change to new arenas. It’s amazing how efficiently a few hours of sliding socks wears away paint and markers. (If chemicals were needed, a bottle of “Fantastik” usually did the trick.)
Above the area where the goal was, a glass pane opened from a window well that often contained baby birds, and an occasional dead squirrel. More often than not that window broke when a shot sailed over the goal. We experimented with a “soft-puck”, essentially a sock fashioned into a puck shape with a quarter pound of masking tape. While it was softer, realism suffered because hockey can’t be played with mushy puck. So, we leaned on tradition and went back to a hard puck…and broken windows. Our parents grew frustrated with having to replace it all the time so we fashioned a heavy cardboard barrier and taped it over the window. An occasional blast would still break the glass but it kept mom and dad happier.
Games were usually played like half court basketball, with one goalie and two teams made up of one player each. Those were the times I took the biggest beating because my older brother was (and still is!) eight years my senior. When he and a friend or a cousin came down I would put on my customized cardboard mask that sometimes was Tony Esposito style, other times Gerry Cheevers style ( I took great pride in putting stitch marks on the cardboard with a magic marker when I’d get hit in the face with a shot). Grabbing a baseball glove and a modified cardboard blocker glove I would take my place in nets and….Game on!
Playing in socks as a goalie was always the best from a functional standpoint because they allowed the greatest freedom of movement, but there was a problem: Toes always lose in the battle against wooden hockey sticks and orange plastic pucks-especially since the latter were often wrapped with electrical tape to weigh them down which helped them slide and fly more true. Gym shoes didn’t work as they provided too much friction, but my “Sunday shoes” were perfect. Yes, they had a little bit of a heel but they allowed me to slide from side to side and kept my toes from being battered. Yet, as the humidity rose in the basement and the shoes began to stick on the wet concrete the only choice was to take the shoes off and go back to the socks… and painful toe saves.
While playing games with my bros and others was fun and honed my budding, butterfly style goaltending skills, there were those times when I would take my regular stick downstairs and shut the door behind me as I descended the steps from the “locker room” to the ice. As the organ played on in the background of my mind I would put that first foot on the ice and push off from the stairs and begin my “pre-game skate”. After the obligatory warm up I would slide over to the cassette tape recorder and press “Play” to start the tape of the National Anthem (and perhaps “Oh Canada” if I was playing a Canadian team). We recorded it from a Blackhawks’ game we saw on TV. As the tape played I would stand at attention on the blue line, waiting for it to finish.
At the completion of the Anthem and with a roar of the crowd I’d hit the “Off” button and continue skating around the ice, my mouth alternating between making crowd noises and announcing the game. With the organ playing and crowd cheering, I’d line up at the center ice circle for the drop of the puck…
…and the game began….