Playing Hockey On ‘The River’ Could Be Hazardous!

“Watson get out of the water! You’ve got your new clothes on! Your father is gonna kill you!”

These were the words we heard before we could even see the dam and river. But, I’m getting ahead of my story … you have to understand certain things first!

In Sussex from at least the 1930’s to the early 1950’s the favourite unofficial rink in Sussex was a stretch of quiet water above the filtration plant dam on Trout Creek. The dam created a deep pool about 30 feet wide which, because it was not as free-flowing as other river channels within the town, was always the first to freeze over in late fall..

It was the rink where most of us in that area got our early hockey instruction from older kids, no coaches or referees, seldom an audience. My apprenticeship began at eight when my grandfather bought me my first pair of tube skates. That was 1942; until then my skating had been done with bob-skates on garden patches of ice.

Like most everyone who played on ‘the river’ in those years I couldn’t afford a pair of shin pads or hockey gloves until my final years of high school. Just buying a stick and an occasional puck bent my budget and most of us still have bumps and scars as reminders of those happy days when we’d play from early morning to after dark Saturdays and Sundays and almost every afternoon after school when the weather permitted.

It was pick-up hockey with usually ten or more aside but with a number of those always ‘temporarily winded’ or recovering from minor injuries ‘off ice’ it made the number on each side usually just about right…a couple of defense men, a goalie and a number of forwards. Anyone coming late to ‘the game’ was picked up alternatively by the sides.

The big problem with the location, however, was losing pucks. All we ever had at the dam end as a barrier were wide planks on their edges and pucks lifted over a foot high that missed the net went over the dam and were usually not retrievable until the ice broke up in late March or April and water levels dropped. Those who took the time to fish them out became the suppliers of pucks the next fall but that stockpile usually ran out as all of them, of course, could ever be found, washed downstream and under banks. I remember one year retrieving 38 of them myself and others found some as well.

But the biggest thrill of all any fall was to be ‘first on the ice.’ You sort of felt you owned that river rink for the next few months if you were. But qualifying for that honour was not without its dangers as some found out. Thankfully there was never a fatality, but there were nail-biters.

I lived on Magnolia Avenue from 1939 until a couple of years after high school, a street that at our mid-stretch, had only a government yard and shed … a long tin covered structure housing bridge materials and road maintenance machines … between it, the river and dam. Winter Street which parallels Main in that part of Sussex ends right across from where the filtration plant and the dam once existed.

One afternoon I was walking home from school with Delbert Thorne, a friend in my class who lived on what was then the far end of Magnolia Avenue in the last of what were, originally, identical houses called the Seven Sisters. When we reached the end of Winter Street Delbert said suddenly: “It’s been pretty cold the last few nights, lets see if the river has iced up yet.”

As it turned out his sudden thought proved providential. We crossed the Avenue, walked along the side of the filtration plant and rounded the end of the tin shed to see a sight that afterwards the four of us would laugh about but could have easily ended in tragedy. Paul Watson who lived nearby had broken through the ice and was holding on to the edge. He was a grade younger than we were and his next door neighbour, a year younger than him, was running around yelling “Watson, get out of the water! You’ve got your new clothes on! Your father is gonna kill you!”

Well, Delbert and I quickly got a plank from the lumber piles in front of the shed, and between the three of us we were able to get Paul out, dripping and cold but uninjured. Paul’s father owned a fairly successful hardware and had taken him and his brother to Saint John recently for new winter outfits, one of which Paul was wearing. As the neighbour, who was his constant companion in those days, said he’d been so concerned about what Paul’s father was going to do to him he just hadn’t thought about helping him get out and, well, he knew Paul was a good swimmer.

That was the big danger of being ‘first on’: the dream of being that year’s celebrity could result in a quick cold splash back to reality. And if any of us had, unfortunately, gone through and came up under the ice we would have met the same fate as the young hockey player in Stephen King’s Dead Zone. If you’ve read that book or seen the movie that scene may already have come to mind.

My own icy water baptism occurred a couple of years later but not during a try at being the ‘first on.’ When it snowed we… us kids…would shovel off our river rink but when a thaw came and the river refroze with shale and ridges, as it sometimes did, we’d borrow a force pump with hoses from the filtration plant and flood the tennis court across the river in O’Connell Park.

One Saturday morning, after a late Friday night of hockey by moonlight I overslept, wolfed down breakfast, pulled on a jacket and hat, grabbed my skates, stick, a couple of pucks and ran across the open space…where the new Sussex Public Library now stands…which led directly to the river a few hundred feet upstream from the dam, jumped down. Unfortunately a few days of higher temperatures had weakened the ice under the snow and I was in water up to my waist before I knew it and still sinking. Luckily my reflexes were much faster then than they are now and I was able to catch an overhanging tree limb and pull myself out.

Then it was a fast run back to the house, dripping water all the way, a quick change of clothes and footwear and I was off again on the longer but safer route around by Main Street’s turreted bridge. And really thankful to find, on reaching our tennis court rink, that no one had witnessed my drenching or my dripping exit from the river

I’ve often thought that my two sons, who were transported in heated vehicles to indoor rinks with dressing rooms and toilets facilities during their dozen school years in organized hockey and never played a skirmish game on an open pond or river, missed so much in physical conditioning! All the fun of walking a couple of miles to play other area teams and often helping shovel an outdoor rink when you got there for a game at which we’d be lucky to have a referee, never even expect a linesman. It sure helped built self-reliance, certain survival skills and endurance, though, if nothing else!