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Leafs versus Wings: share your memories of playing outdoors in your own “Winter Classics”…

I know the Leafs have signed Phaneuf to a massive new deal, but rather than analyze that (or the Leafs and all their “problems”) to death—we do all that here often enough, eh— I figured we’d do something a bit different.

So today, with the Alumni games behind us and the ‘Winter Classic’ minutes away, I thought I’d invite responses that should evoke warm memories for some of you.

Here is my request:  post your memories of playing hockey outdoors as a kid (or more recently, if you’ve had the fortune of having that experience as an adult). When did it happen and where?  Was it a blast?  Who did you play with?  Did you ever play with anyone who went on to become famous (in hockey or other walks of life)? What "position" did you usually play?

For me, playing outdoors remains one of my most cherished childhood memories.  I seem to recall playing with friends outdoors until I was about 15 or so.  I haven’t had new (or even usable!) skates in years, but would love the chance to play again on a pond somewhere.  As a child, I played on “River Canard”, a winding local river that was connected to the nearby Detroit River.  (I was born and raised in that small community of River Canard, near LaSalle and just outside of Windsor.)

Playing with my buddies was a treat.  Like most kids of that time (early and mid 1960s), there were no outdoor rinks available in our local community until a bit later and so we had to play on the local rivers and ponds, but how great a feeling it was.  Making and taking a pass at “full speed” (at least it felt like full speed) while skating with the wind at your back brings back wonderful feelings to this day.

I cherish those memories and sometimes wish I could re-live them.  I wore a toque to keep my head warm, also some old elbow pads in case I landed hard on the ice (which happened a lot in those sometimes rough and tumble games) but no other equipment, really.  No knee or shin pads most of the time and certainly no shoulder pads.  We were out there skating, passing, occasionally running each other over and making plays. The less equipment to slow you down, the better. 

When someone showed up who could actually play goal (two neminders was even better), that meant we could finally raise the puck.  And if someone owned or had access to any kind of real hockey nets, well, we were in heaven.

One of the mot fun things?  Taking turns shovelling the snow with my pals, and creating snow banks that you could knock each other flying into with some great (but clean!) open ice checks.  No head shots back then.

Anyway, those are a few of my memories.  What about you?


I continue to receive questions about my eBook, "The Maple Leafs of My Youth" and some uplifting feedback as well.  Click here to access the links for the various ways you can download the book.  (If you visit the iTunes book preview page link, check out the link that says, "View in iBooks" to see the latest "Reader Reviews".) You may enjoy giving yourself a New Years gift that triggers your own Leaf memories--and I would appreciate it, too! If you'd like to connect, contact me at


  1. I remember in grade 2, which would be 78' coming back to school from lunch hour. There was a group of older kids, must have been out of school and they were playing a full on game on the outdoor rink. I stood on a snow bank and watched them for what felt like hours. Finally, I went back to class well over an hour late. I was in a lot of trouble for sure but that was the start of my life long love affair with hockey. I remember playing on that rink when I was younger for hours. By the time I hit peewee I was playing on rep teams and didn't have time anymore but that is where my love of the game developed for sure.

    The sad part is I was back in my hometown of Dawson Creek BC just a couple of weeks ago and wanted to show my kids the old neighborhood where I had grown up. We drove by my old school and the outside rink had been torn down and a playground put up in its place. Talked to one of my friends and he was saying that there were no outdoor rinks left in town. Seems to me kids aren't allowed to be kids anymore. Feels like no parent would let their kids just go out by themselves and play for hours on end with no supervision. Kids don't get to just have fun and grow to love the game anymore. Then we wonder why minor hockey is suffering an enrollment crisis as less and less kids play. Seems like a shame to me.

  2. Thanks for sharing that, Willbur. I, too, spent time watching "older kids" play outdoors when I was little. I was in awe of their size and speed on skates. Eventually, I was allowed to play with them.

    It's true, as you say- not many youngsters nowadays have the opportunity to play hockey in a safe outdoor environment. A shame, indeed.

  3. Michael
    I have a few memories you might find interesting. While I did come out to River Canard to play on a few occasions, I also played at Turkey Creek and more often at Stodgell Park where the Firemen used to flood a rink for us. I remember getting frostbite in my feet after one outing and a young fellow taking me to his home nearby where his Mom put my feet in a tub of warm water to thaw them out while my folks could come and take me home.
    I also remember a house at the top of Gladstone Rd in Windsor that used to flood a rink in their backyard and let us play on it if we shoveled the snow off it. I never knew the names of the folks because I don't think they had any kids - at least not ones of our age. I used to deliver newspapers on nearby Windermere Rd and carried my stick and skates with my bag of newspapers so I could play after I was done and before I headed home. Great memories!
    I also played road hockey against a fellow who was a younger brother of a girl who was part of the group of kids we hung around with, His name was Bob Sneddon and he ended up playing a few games in goal for the California Golden Seals. He was younger than us but we enjoyed playing against him in road hockey as he had an unbelievably good glove hand! I think his Dad had some relationship with the Wings at Olympia and I think he was able to practice or get some tips from Terry Sawchuck. Regardless, he was good!
    Incidently, I think his sister Mary ended up marrying Ken Hodge who was a pretty good player for the Bruins.

    1. Pretty much every name (street name, park or person) rings a bell with me, Ed. I used to play baseball at Stodgell Park as a teenager, and I think my older brothers did too. Turkey Creek was just down the road from us, in LaSalle. I think I would play there on occasion myself, though not as regularly as I played with friends on the River Canard.

      I do remember Bob Sneddon and that he played for the Seals. Isn't it something to know that you played road hockey against a future NHLer? And any tips from a goaltender like Sawchuk couldn't hurt, eh?

      Hodge was a big, strong winger for the Hawks and Bruins in their hey day. (You would also remember him being traded with Espo to the Rangers, I'm sure.)

      I appreciate your taking the time to share those old-time memories, Ed, great stuff.

  4. First I have to comment on the alumni game. It was so special to see those guys out there again, to see Lanny McDonald rip one home, to see Darryl Sittler skate, heck even to see Mickey Redmond make a nifty cross crease pass for a goal. Most of all, a 59 year old Mike Palmateer, sprawling all over the place as if it were still 1979.

    That was me in 1979. Diving around in the dirt, on the asphalt, or even on my back deck, pretending to be Palmateer. Until I would get on the ice, at that point I didn't want to be in net. Those hockey pucks hurt a whole lot more than tennis balls.

    I rarely had a pair of skates of my own, but would go out in my boots if I couldn't borrow a pair. I grew up in Haliburton, and the river behind our home would usually freeze just enough on one side to skate on. I don't believe anyone from my age going far in hockey, although I do vividly remember a cocky young man with flowing blonde hair chasing us kids off the tennis court we were using to play street hockey once. Someone told me that guy played junior hockey. I hadn't heard of Bernie Nicholls yet but soon we all would.

    I've always found it remarkable that my little hometown has produced not only Nicholls, but Ron Stackhouse, Matt Duchene, and Cody Hodgson got his start there too. But when I remember how kids there played hockey in any way they could, all year round, with such a love for the game, I realize how much the structured city-style organized hockey pales in comparison. Kids from my hometown by and large played out of pure love of th game, not because they were pushed into it. How I wish my sons had the same opportunities!

    A very happy New Year to you Michael and all visitors here!

    1. Watching the old timers is always so neat. I remember, many years ago, Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard were part of some kind of event that was on TV. (They didn't call it a Legends game or anything back then). This may have even been before Howe made his WHA comeback in 1974. In any event, they both were sort of allowed to make a "rush" up the ice and score into an empty net. Howe just tapped the puck into the goal; the Rocket rifled one to the top corner.

      Isn't Haliburton the home of the one-time "Haliburton Hockey Haven", one of the major hockey "schools" or camps of the '60s (and maybe later)? It must be, or have been, a great hockey town.

      Bernie Nicholls became a fine player, for sure, including with the Kings, if I remember correctly. Very skilled guy.

      Stackhouse played with the old California Golden Seals (green skates?), did he not, in the early expansion years?

      No question kids played for the true love of the game back then. I'm sure many do now, too, but yes, the highly structured, over-coached part of youth hockey has changed the approach. Thanks Pete- and a Happy New Year to you as well.

  5. The only childhood game on skates that I played outdoors was when our street on Vancouver Island actually 'froze over' and a street hockey contingent of players 'laced 'em up' and played a hybrid game on that ice (that lasted for 2-3 days)... I had one of the two nets, so increasingly played goal from a young age (without the requisite padding).

    Later in life (29 or 30), I finally scoured the used equipment sources and picked up enough pieces to cover myself reasonably for some ball hockey games when my (former Junior star) friend moved to Vancouver (where his Junior star brother had moved some years earlier). I also lived with another Junior player whose claim to fame was being the first to break Tim Hunter's nose when they were 12 (any later, and my friend would never have been able to reach his nose - given his 5'5" stature).

    In any case, we all set out for an outdoor (cement rink) to play a pick up game that shocked the regulars with our 'prowess' - my closest friend was the first to be inducted into the Canadian Ball Hockey Hall of Fame (having been MVP in a tournament against Joe Sakic!!). Of course, he is also the uncle of Evander Kane (whose brother, Perry, had moved to Vancouver earlier). Quite the 'ringers', eh!

    It may not be ice hockey, but it was a lot of fun!

    The only time I used those pads on ice, was in Calgary where there was an outdoor rink across the street that hadn't been flooded in years, so a friend and I got access and set it up for his (and the neighbourhood) kids to use... of course, we both joined in for that.

    Sadly, I just found out that the city tore it down - guess there weren't enough volunteers to keep it going after we moved...

    In any case, it's funny how much happiness all such memories invoke! Thanks for the memories (perhaps you're the Bob Hope of the Hockey world :)

    1. I know Vancouver has a lot different climate than the GTA, InTimeFor62, so it's interesting to hear about your west coast "outdoor" hockey experience. (Sounds like the game you describe involved some guys on skates and some with their ball hockey gear...)

      Tim Hunter is a great old name, and of course has a recent Leaf (coaching) connection. He played his best years with the Flames.

      I remember your referencing the Kane family before- what a talented family that must be.

      Outdoor rinks just don't exists the way they used to, I guess. It's sad to lose that old time connection with the sport. Thanks, InTimeFor62. (And I'm not as funny as Hope, but appreciate the reference to the classic song associated with him!)

  6. My Dad always built a backyard rink and we would lace up after school and supper. This was just outside of Kingston. It was fun to be out after dark with just the back light on, and hard for Mom to get us to come in. Our school., though it was small, had a wonderful large rink with boards but it was gone by 1970.
    My husband played in the Church Hockey League with Kenny Linesman and managed to spend more time in the penalty box than Kenny did. I'm not sure who influenced who more but a fight with the coach's son ended his hockey aspirations! C.N.

    1. A backyard rink! That's special. (We had one when I was really, really young, but one or two winters at most.) The feeling of playing at night, as you say, is something you always remember. And a school with an outdoor rink. Again, you don't see that much any more. I do on occasion see a family in our neighbourhood, west of Toronto, who can manage a rink. Lots of work and with the off and on conditions, so hard to maintain.

      Linseman was a very well-known NHLer. (I remember him most with the Flyers, but he played elsewhere as I recall, too.) Good of you to share those memories. Thanks C.N.

  7. Wonderful topic Michael.

    I grew up in Leaside and lived across the street from a public school. The Board of Education erected boards and paid a guy to flood the rink every evening. A non hockey rink was also flooded and I started to learn to skate as a two year old (with double runner skates). As I was growing up I would spend all day Saturday and Sunday afternoons on that rink. I would get home with no feeling in my feet ears and hands. Teams were formed (maybe 10+ per side) and you learned to skate and stickhandle if you wanted to touch the puck more than sporadically.

    Later on I attended UTS and we played in a league with Upper Canada College, St. Michaels and De La Salle. Most of our games were played on outdoor artificial rinks. I can remember one game where it was so cold that the skates meeting the ice squeaked adding an eerie backdrop to the match. Many times when it was snowing we had to stop a game and shovel the ice.

    in Leaside played with two players (although they were older and probably wouldn't remember me) named Bob Cunningham and Sandy McGregor. Both played for the Guelph Biltmores and the AHL Baltimore Clippers. Both also had a cup of coffee with out the New York Rangers. I cannot but lament that if they had been born 10 years later they both would have had long NHL careers.

    I also remember playing against Brian Conacher when he was at UCC. In fact he delivered the hardest check I ever received in hockey.

    I lament, along with Wilbur, the disappearance of outdoor rinks. I can't help but feel that something has been lost. A lot of Canadian kids developed skating and puck handling skills playing unorganized shinny on outdoor rinks.

    1. I can so relate to the "no feeling" you cite above, Pete Cam. (I also learned a life lesson at a very early age not to wash your freezing cold hands with hot water! That you don't forget.)

      That had to be a blast playing high school age hockey against those other big "name" schools. A different time, so long gone, eh?

      Great to hear those wonderful old names- and you are so right, if expansion had hit earlier, more of those players like the individuals you mention would have been NHL regulars.

      Brian Conacher had a short but solid career with the Leafs. He certainly was a contributor to that '67 Cup. It sounds like he left a calling card you still remember!

      We all bemoan the loss of the outdoor days. I just drove by kids playing on their front yard rink today. Just one young family but it warmed my heart. Thanks Pete- and Happy New Year.

    2. Michael & Pete
      I have often though Pete and I seem to have very similar memories - timing, MLGs, in Atlanta area now.

      At UWO, I played for a very good team from Medway Hall Residence, that was made up primarily of private school players from likes of UCC, Ridley, St. Andrews, etc.. We lost in finals to Christ the King College which had a number of players with St. Michaels College experience. Goalie was from UCC (Nipper Norris) who I suspect Pete may have played against.

      If Conacher hit Pete, I can imagine it hurt as he was big and fast.

      Have a happy New Year

  8. Hi Michael:

    Great stories and nostalgia.

    Opportunities to play organized hockey was often not readily available in those good old days. Without outdoor hockey, I don't believe that I would have ever had the opportunity to play at a competitive level through minor hockey, college hockey, industrial league hockey, old timers and coaching. And the good part is, this was all for fun.

    When I was in Grade 4, I moved from Toronto to Stoney Creek, Ont. I was totally unprepared to play hockey on the marshes near Lake Ontario. My skating was so poor, that I played goal. At least, I was smart enough to know not to use my boots for goal posts.

    Then, I got lucky, in Grade 7, we moved to Ancaster, Ont. and we lived near the Hamilton Golf & CC and it was not far to the 8th hole pond where I spent many days every year for a number of years. The competition was fierce as the older players needed some of us younger ones in order to have a meaningful game. There was a second larger pond (Jerome's farm) where you graduated to better games. Occasionally, after I started going to high school in Hamilton, there were many games going on at the Hamilton Marsh which fed into Lake Ontario. I played primarily center when I realized how dangerous goalie was.

    Upon reaching high school, the norm became playing competitive hockey on artificial ice outdoor rinks which became a major part of my life. I went on to play competitive hockey in Dundas, Ont. My first coach at 15 in a juvenile league of top teams in Hamilton area, was Leo Reise (believe he was Red Kelly's defense partner with Red Wings). He could skate faster backwards than any of us could frontwards.

    I was fortunate to play for a little town (Copetown) in the Ontario playdowns each year, which got me into many old arenas in southern & southwest Ontario, many had defining characteristics (e.g. high boards and almost square corners in Port Colborne). One arena where we practiced and played some games was an old barn in Lynden, Ont. This barn arena was built over the top of a pond and they opened the doors to freeze the natural ice. The ice was very good, but you had to be careful of the nails in the boards. Playing in competitive and high school hockey in this area, I played against such players as Pat Quinn, Wayne Rivers and John Miszuk. One player I played with and against, was Bob Myers who became an NHL referee.

    Before UWO got into intercollegiate hockey, they built an outdoor artificial rink on campus. Here many of the interfaculty teams were probably equivalent to Junior B. These were tough games to be playing outdoors at night (cold!!!). It was here that I learned I should get a good education as I played against Brian Conacher prior to his going on to the Leafs. It was apparent my skating still left a lot to be desired.

    Like many of you, I built a rink in our backyard in Agincourt from which both a son and daughter got a lot of fun from.

    It is no accident that some of the best players ever come from small towns and many spent thousands of hours on outdoor rinks just playing, not being over-coached in some "system".

    1. I so enjoy hearing those small-town names, Ralph (RLMcC). Stoney Creek, Ancaster, Dundas, all great communities. Leo Reise was a very big name. What a tremendous opportunity you had to be coached by a long-time NHLer.

      Quinn, Rivers and Miszuk would bring back memories for a lot of fans of that era. (And like Pete, above, you had your own interaction with future Leaf Brian Conacher! He was such an intelligent guy, and wrote a couple of must-read books that talked about hockey in Canada...)

      Glad to see you were able to create some memories for your own children with an outdoor rink at home, too.

      And I fully agree- we have seemingly, sadly, left behind a time when kids played freely on rivers, ponds and outdoor rinks, and learned the skills while having old-fashioned fun- and without the micro-managing coaching approach we have today. Thanks Ralph, and Happy New Year.

  9. In my preteen years I grew up in the community of Don Mills in Toronto. The Heights was a rental community within the larger community and it was there that I learned to skate and play hockey on outdoor rinks. Yes, in the mid 60s we had reliable winter ice in Toronto. The men in the neighborhood blocked off a part of a parking lot which they flooded for us. We spent hour upon hour on that ice, playing into the evening until we were kicked off for the night so the ice could have its evening flood. The Heights had dozens of kids and there was always a game going on. It was those hours of skating and puckhandling that I remember as one of the most enjoyable parts of childhood. I played only a couple of years of organized hockey at the Don Mills arena, but the spark for hockey that was born on that outdoor parking lot rink still is going, more than half a century later. We had a few kids that went on to play at a higher level. Cliff Cox went to university on a hockey scholarship in the states and was drafted by Montreal in the 70s, playing a few years of minor pro. Neil Labbatt also was one of our crew and played with St. Louis.

    1. Don Mills, another great old community. It's funny, Steve, how those of us posting here today have some kinship with our hometowns, or the communities we lived in, in part based on our youth hockey experiences? I'm not sure that sort of life experience, which just kind of happened naturally back then, could ever be recaptured today.

      In reference to your old friend drafted by Montreal. I think it's such an achievement even to be drafted, whether you ever play at pro level or not. Thanks for posting, Steve.