Sunday, June 2, 2013

Chapter 2: Skating On Thin Ice

Fresh Ice! Lake Phipps-from my back yard
Besides Mike McDermott, two adult mentors came into my life at that time.  First was Vern Gesner.  Mr. Gesner was the ice czar of Lake Phipps.  He was the one who everyone relied on to determine when the ice was thick enough to skate on.  And he had played for the Blades.  The New Haven Blades were the local semi-pro team.  They played in the old Eastern Hockey League at the New Haven Arena.  ( I did some checking and Mr. Gesner actually played for the New Haven Bears, a predecessor to the Blades). The website inaccurately spells it Gessner with two S's. 

Mr. Gesner was a wizard on the ice.  My instant hero.  Everyone's actually.  For a living, my hero was a plumber and a lobsterman. He could stick handle through everybody and make the goalie look like a fool.  Two boots were the make-shift hockey goal.  There was no "lifting" the puck so you had to be able to either shoot it past the poor sap who was playing goalie or you had to be able to deke him and shovel the puck past him.  

The Gesners lived directly across the lake from us.  They had lights on their dock.  Mr. Gesner would shovel an area in front of his property to form a hockey rink/figure skating area and then flood it to keep the surface smooth.   His wife had skated in the Ice Capades and his daughter, Gail, was a figure skater.  We hated her. 

 My first real job as a teenager was working with Mr. Gesner in the summer on his lobster boat. I would wake up at 4:30 five days a week and row across the lake to his house.  He kept his boat in the harbor in New Haven. My job was to empty the lobster pot once Mr. Gessner would pull them out of the Long Island Sound. I had to separate the lobsters from the rest of the creatures we caught. Then I would separate the males out, measure them and peg their claws.  Everything else was tossed back into the water. Then I had to put my hands into a trash can full of rotten fish and bait the traps. I got sick the first day out. The only good things were that we were done by noon and the money was good. Of course I spent almost every dollar on hockey. 

That winter of 1967-68 hockey became my life. I was in the 7th grade at Gianotti Junior High.  (Proudly in our hearts you lie) Everything I did was centered around playing hockey.  I couldn't wait to get home from school.  I would do everything in my power to avoid trips to my grandparents.  That was just time I couldn't skate.  We would get home from school and play until dinner then come back out and skate the length of the lake in the moonlight.  All you could hear was the scraping sound of the steel blades cutting the ice, wooden sticks banging pucks and the occasional freezing cracks that would scare the uninitiated but was comforting to us.

My other mentor was Whitey Bensen.  Whitey was our supplier.  Our dealer.  He was the source of us getting our stuff.  He sold hockey sticks and equipment out of the trunk of his car.  As soon as I could I saved enough to buy a pair of Riddell kangaroo leather skates.  They were green.  They were awesome! But I think I would have probably used the word groovy or cool.  

I was so happy.  Whitey took me and my friends under his wing, kept us outfitted and out of trouble for years to come. Whitey, and his son Kyle, went on to become the largest hockey and lacrosse retailer in Connecticut.  I still stop in and say hi and buy sticks for my son when I'm in Connecticut.  They supply many of the Connecticut high school, prep school and colleges, including NCAA Natty Champs, Yale.

Weekends were always the best.  All of the local high school team players and some college kids would show up and we would have these large games that would last all day long.  The legendary local high school hockey coach, Art Crouse was always there.  He lived at the other end of the lake with his family.  His son's Arty and Marty would be there.  Arty was the robust backup goalie on the team.  Marty was a diminutive but fast little skater.  Other high school players included; starting goalie, Richard Goldsmith,  Defensemen Tony Amendola and Mark "Duck" Williams, forwards Arty Friend and Kerry Bertrand.  Kerry could lean and turn on a dime making the tightest turns I'd ever seen.  He would almost be parallel to the ice.  I always tried to copy that.  There were the Degennaro brothers and many more, but it was always a great, fun community event.

We were there too. The next generation.  Me, Steiny, Mike McD, Frank Longobardi, Frank Vingiano, Bob Blakeslee, Dave Depew, Paul Sikorsky, Dave Hansen and our goalie, Scott Dufresne.   Italians, Polish, French, Jewish and Irish....but mostly Italian.

As the winter turned to spring, the lake melted and we fished.  We also scoured the lake bottom along the shore line for pucks that were lost during the winter.  Hockey gave way to baseball.  For a bit.

That spring held the greatest surprise.  The city of West Haven completed construction of the rink at the high school.   We lived about a mile from the school and the new rink.  Instead of having to wait until the next winter, we got to keep playing starting in the early summer.  Whitey Bensen held a hockey camp.  I still have my "report card".  I would get better!  But it did say I had talent and great potential.  I'm sure they said that to all the kids.
In the fall, during my eighth grade I joined the West Shore Youth Hockey League.  I can't remember the name of my team. (note: I just found this picture...The team was "American Legion".  I guess I was the Captain.) We played in the Bantam level.  Hockey always did have strange names for the different age levels....there's mites, and squirts, peewee's and bantams, then you get to midgets and either sound like a noise one makes while peeing or you are a politically incorrect slur....

Once in the midst of my son's youth hockey days I was telling someone I worked with he plays "midget" hockey.  This level goes from 15 to 18 years old, right before you graduate all the up to "Junior" hockey.  Whoa, you are finally a Junior.  Anyway this co-worker found it kind of interesting that there is a hockey level for midgets.  He didn't say it, but he was thinking how odd that my son was a midget.  I straightened him out but I think it was he who had it right.  It is a bit odd.

Whatever our team was called we wore Boston Bruins colors and we lost our first game by score of 13-0.  So much for talent and potential.

Things picked up and we did much better.  I made the all-star team.  I also got hurt.  I took a nasty spill on a hit from behind in the corner.  I came down hard, flat on my seat.  This was significant.  I'm still paying for it.  I'd injured my back but I also learned how to hide my pain.  They said I broke my coccyx.  All I know is it hurt like hell and I was not allowed to play for a month.  

As soon as possible, I was back on the ice.  In addition to the Bantam league, the lake was now frozen again and we continued to spend every available free moment skating.

We would also sneak out late at night and go to the New Haven Arena to play after midnight. Someone must have known someone.  I was getting to be pretty good, along with my buddies.  We would go and skate with the older high school kids.  Somehow we convinced my brother who had his driver's license to take us to New Haven.  We would play until 3:00 am.  I'm fuzzy on the details.  I don't recall how we got around my parents.  I don't remember if we snuck in or if someone let us in.  I do have vague and slightly disturbing memories of us all playing hockey wearing only our jock straps at 3 in the morning.

Tony Amendola(Back row, 2nd from Right)
Also Whitey Bensen and Gunner Garrett in the
front row
If memory serves me, it was the following winter that I had my near death experience.  I had gotten a very bad grade in my freshman algebra class. I was threatened by my mother with having hockey taken away until my grade picked up.  It was during one of those late night skating sessions that I shared my woes with senior defenseman Tony Amendola.  Tony was a bad ass.  He took shit from no one.  His advice to me was to tell my mom to go "f-herself" if she followed through with her threat to punish me.  I was inspired.  Great talk.  Thanks Tony!

So then that happened.  Sure enough my mom brought the hammer down and I came back with a poorly timed and ill-conceived retort.  All hell broke loose.  I will spare you the ugly details but suffice to say that I "ran away" for a few days.  I stayed with another buddy, who was not the best influence...his name was Blakeslee.  Bob Blakeslee.  Bob lived on the other side of the tracks.

Bob was my age.  A talented defenseman with a blistering slap shot.  He ended up going away to a prep school, Trinity Pawling or TP for our junior year.  I think Whitey Bensen helped him get a full those go for close to $50,000.  Probably about $5000 back then.

I'm not sure why he returned to West Haven for our senior year.  Something about drinking and weed most likely.  Oh, the prep school life.  But he was was back on the high school team for our senior season and helped us get to the state championship finals that year.  He also brought Lacrosse back with him so we had a club Lacrosse team that spring.

I returned home after a few days in exile to serve my month long stint in the penalty box.  When you live on a lake and your life is consumed with hockey you end up learning all kinds of terms and distinctions for weather and different types of ice conditions.  I imagine it is similar to some degree to how Eskimos have so many words for snow or the way surfers have so many terms for waves and wind.    Same with skiers.   Also true for pond hockey players.

There was a day during my prohibition when my parents were out of town.  When a lake freezes for the first time of the season it creates a beautiful sheet of mirror like "black ice".  It's called black ice because it is clear and with the dark water visible beneath the frozen surface it appears to be black.

There is nothing better for skating than black ice.  After a day or so of a cold snap the ice continues to freeze, getting thicker but it also expands.  Like ice cubes in a glass of water, the ice surface develops cracks.  They happen constantly.  The ice splits and cracks making all kinds of cracking and pinging sounds.  Sometimes a fissure will fire up right between your own two feet.  Others will come from an angle and intersect with an existing crack.  There is really no risk of falling through the ice.  It's too thick by now.   The risk is potentially catching your blade in one of these cracks, getting your foot stuck and possibly twisting an ankle or a knee.  Mostly the worst that happens is it causes a skater to lose their footing and wipe out.

Over a few days the ice forms many cracks and lots of snow from all the stopping and starting.  We simply move to new virgin areas for fresh ice.  It was always good to know which property owners were finicky about us playing in front of their homes.  A winter version of "get off my lawn".

As the days passed the ice would get thrashed and we would adapt.  When it snowed it would cover the ice and hide the cracks.  There was no use trying to play until the snow stopped.  But we would skate.  

Snow Covered Lake Phipps
When the snow stopped falling we would get our shovels and clear away a rink sized patch.  This area would now be surrounded by banks of snow on all sides.  Plenty of pucks got lost in these snow banks.

The ice was never great after a snow storm.   We had to take breaks throughout the day to shovel all the snow that came from blades stopping and starting during each game.  The worst conditions came after a snowstorm if it would rain and then freeze up right away.  In these instances a hideous crust formed.  There was no way to skate on this.  We know because we tried anyway.

Hopefully and usually, after this crust formed we were lucky enough to get a warm spell and  maybe even some rain.  This served to completely melt the surface area of the ice.   The shoreline and under the docks would melt entirely.

When the next cold snap arrived the watery surface would refreeze, as would most of the shoreline.  The last to freeze was the water under the docks.

This freshly refrozen melted surface and rainwater was the next best thing to play on besides the initial black ice.  It was this type of condition that we had one fine cold sunny Sunday morning while I was still on suspension with my parents out of town.  Hmmm.

So I did what any self respecting kid would do.  I got my hockey bag, I bundled up and I snuck out down to the other end of the lake to spend the day doing what I loved best.  And what a day it was.  Perfect weather, temperature in the teens.  Perfect Ice.  All my friends were out.  The entire local hockey community was there for this glorious day.  Vern Gesner, Art Crouse, the high school team, my couldn't have been more perfect.  Uh oh.  

The ice was milky white.  There were no freezing cracks other than the one's happening during this day. It was freezing cold, but sunny with clear skies.  The shoreline had refrozen for the most part but you did need to pay attention as there were weak spots.  Not hard to spot or avoid though.

The area underneath the docks remained open water.  Occasionally a puck would be lost to one of these holes.  But they also had a plus side.  You could drink ice cold lake water from them when you got thirsty. This is something we all did many times throughout the day.  There was little that could quench your thirst better than this.

Here's what you had to do.  You would skate up to the dock, lay your stick and gloves on the dock or behind you away from the water then you would get on your hands and knees  and shuffle up to the waters edge.  Then you lay flat on your belly on the ice.  Carefully you  reach your head over the edge and you literally suck the water right out of the lake.  

We all did this many times.  This time as I was gulping this magnificent refreshment, with my body stretched on the ice and my mouth in the water the entire shelf of ice I was laying on collapsed.  Suddenly I'm submerged in the ice cold lake water kicking my feet realizing that trying to swim with steel blades on my feet was not going to work.  I can't say my life flashed before my eyes.  I was, however, wet, shockingly cold and before I needed a breath, I reached out and grabbed the wooden post of the dock.  I was able to quickly pull myself to the ladder and climb out of the water.  

Did I almost die?  Probably not. Would my parents kill me if they found out?  Definitely!

Once on the dock and out of the water I was relieved.  But now I'm realizing how wet and cold I was in my soaking clothes and hockey gear.  Being in the water was shocking but surprisingly it was not a sensation of coldness as you might imagine.  Being underwater, unable to breathe, sinking from the weight of my skates, everything was a reaction.  Being on the dock, out of danger, but cold and wet was just plain miserable.  Immediately everything began to freeze while underneath everything remained wet.

I went over to Blakeslee's house to thaw out, warm up and laugh about the ordeal.  As evidenced by the fact that I'm here to tell this tale, my parents never found out and so did not need to kill me.  Yep, I just called my mom to verify...she never knew of this.  Someday my kids may tell me things.  

More to follow.....

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