Sunday, January 29, 2012
Pond Hockey-Part Two
On the snappy cold mornings of the Fifties and Sixties, we thought nothing of heading out with our skates and sticks on our shoulders. For most of us, it was a short walk to the court yard of the Hastings County Court House and Gaol. We did not realize it at the time, but we were most fortunate to have the perfect place in the world to play a little shinny.
The jail walls were constructed of limestone in the middle of the nineteenth century. Dozens of similar structures still stand, usually in a most regal fashion, throughout Ontario. They were usually built in a prominent area of the community, and housed all areas of justice. They had holding areas for the accused, court rooms for the trials, cells for the convicted, and gallows for the doomed.
We skated in the southern yard of the complex, surrounded by the towering walls, perhaps twenty feet high. The yard immediately north of the rink yard had been used for the four hangings which took place at the court house: Peter Edwin Davis in June, 1890, James Kane in May, 1891, Harold Vermilyea in May of 1935, and Frederick Thain, who met his Maker in 1941. Thain had been convicted of murdering the Wellmans during a botched robbery attempt. Vermilyea was led to the gallows for taking his mother’s life.
When the gallows were removed following the last hanging, they became the boards for the rink on the campus of the Belleville Collegiate Institute and Vocational School on Church Street in Belleville, across the street from the Court House.
Preparing an outdoor rink for skating purposes is a difficult proposition. It requires incredible amounts of time and patience. Above all, the weather must co-operate. Naturally, cold weather is critical, not just to maintain the surface, but to establish a firm basis for the hundreds of gallons of water required to establish and to maintain a perfect ice pad.
We were lucky to have an ideal crew to create and look after our rink. They were several unfortunate individuals incarcerated at the jail. I use the word “unfortunate” not because they were behind bars, but because of their lot in life. Most were veterans of the Second World War, and simply could not cope once they had returned from Europe. They were alcoholics, and lived from one day to the next, from one drink to the next.
They would be picked up by the local constabulary, and housed at the jail for weeks or months at a time. For many, it was a warm room and three square meals a day in the winter. They enjoyed a bit of fresh air, they took pride in their ice-making skills. All to our benefit. They constructed fine nets from two by four lumber, with gunny sacks to trap the pucks. Admittedly, we were completely spoiled.
There was one minor drawback to the conditions. I wore a red tuque to play one crispy Sunday. Occasionally, one could get bumped, unintentionally of course, against the limestone wall. I did not realize it at the time, but after that day on the ice, I retreated home, still wearing my tuque, when I noticed a slight smear on my hand after I removed it. As is the case with most small head wounds, I had bled like the proverbial stuffed pig into the tuque. It rinsed out nicely in the sink. No stitches required. And no tears.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the jailer, Archie Winters, and to the governor of the jail, Bob Scott. Scott had several children who benefited from the rink. The neighbourhood clan, once dubbed the “Church Street Clippers” by journalist George H. Carver, was comprised of a truly motley crew: my brother David, Peter Carver, Bob Jeffrey, the Collins kids, the Denyes kids, and others from the area.
We were required to shovel the rink, on occasion. But the real maintenance took place in the evening, after we had left, or in the morning before we arrived. Our friends would be there, smiling at us from behind the bars as we laced up our skates for another great day on the perfect ice.
January 29, 2012