In Chicago, ice-skating is second nature

By Burk Krohe

As a native Chicagoan, it’s probably fair to say I’m more acclimated to winter, and everything that comes with it, than most people. That’s why I was shocked, offended even, to learn that many of my co-workers and neighbors have little to no interest in hockey and even worse, legitimate fears of ice skating.

The sports staff at the Mercury has made its indifference to hockey known on several occasions, so I won’t bother with those poor, lost individuals. I was, however, surprised to sense the anxiety that ice skating aroused in several Mercury staff members.

During our weekly meeting, Bill Felber suggested an ice skating story to reporter Paul Harris. Harris was open to the story — you can read the result elsewhere on this page — but made it known that he and ice skating don’t mix. He noted that the ice is hard and when he inevitably falls, he must also worry about a hand being sliced by an errant skate.

It was a little dramatic.

News editor Javier Gonzalez and reporter Bryan Richardson, two Houstonians, also admitted wariness about ice skating. Richardson bragged that, at the very least, he could avoid falling (so long as he goes no faster than a snail’s pace around the rink), while Gonzalez seemed to want nothing to do with frozen sheets of water.

Having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, where high schools have hockey teams and every other town has an ice rink, this was all strange to me. I learned to skate at such an early age that I had to call my mother to get an approximation.

She couldn’t recall exactly when she put my brother and me in skating lessons at the Crystal Ice House, our local rink, and I imagine the name of an awful local beer someplace in Canada. We concluded that it was when I was in first or second grade because she remembers our skates being about a size 4. I’m not great at math, but I think it means I was around 8.

It was an ordinary thing to do in my town, and I remember being excited to learn to skate because that meant it was only a short time before a hockey stick was in my hands. My mom recalled that I took to skating naturally. She also recalls that it took my brother a bit longer to get the hang of things, describing his initial efforts “like Bambi on ice skates.”

He must have taken after her.

She learned to skate at an early age, too, growing up near a city park in Chicago. She wore a pair of too-big, used skates with newspaper stuffed in the toes. She said that on a few occasions, she wound up in the middle of a hockey game, struggling on all fours to get to the snow bank while simultaneously trying to avoid the puck. 

But she didn’t remember the class being split in to two groups. I, on the other hand, can’t forget.

There were two instructors: a guy, a hockey player; and a girl, a figure skater. The hockey player instructed most of the boys who signed up for lessons, including my brother. Note that I said “most of the boys.” I was instructed by the figure skater, who also instructed most of the girls.

I wasn’t pleased with the arrangement. I remember looking longingly at the other end of the ice where the rest of the boys were, wishing I could join them. At that age, cooties were a very real concern, and I wasn’t positive the rink was cold enough to eradicate them. In retrospect, it was nice learning to skate without worrying about being pushed or fake checked into the boards.

After I served my time in my female ice prison, my parents enrolled us in a program that taught youngsters the basics of hockey. We also took part in some (heavily) supervised scrimmages.

Obviously, we loved it. A little movie called “The Mighty Ducks,” which introduced hockey to kids nationwide, had just premiered. The Chicago Blackhawks had just played in the Stanley Cup Finals, too. They lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but I won’t go into that.

As my mom noted, I was quick skater, and I also had a good wrist shot. However, my dreams of playing for the Blackhawks (or the Mighty Ducks) were dashed when my mom informed us it was too expensive to play club hockey. All was not lost, though. There were plenty of pond hockey games and trips to the ice rink open skates in the years to come.

I guess what I’m really saying is I’m glad that I grew up in the North, so I don’t have to be afraid of a little frozen water.

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