Saturday, March 04, 2006

March: Madness or Sadness?

Thin white islands emerge from a giant cloud mainland, interrupting this morning’s pale blue sky. I’m walking downhill, Rick Springfield’s "Jesse’s Girl" pulsing through my iPod Shuffle’s ear buds, forcing me to pick up my pace. I’m on my way to check the status of the local pond, hoping the twenty-degree weather will hold throughout the day.

My last two weekend visits to the shallow, man-made hockey haven ended in dejection. The pond was clearly not been ready for human weight. Canadian geese had left their mark on the landscape surrounding my outdoor rink, which is as wide as an Olympic ice surface and a few feet shorter than a standard NHL rink, and had advanced onto the pond. But any expectation I have of playing on home ice this winter has started to slip through my gloved fingers, as February advances toward March.

March: The major sports networks are preoccupied with NCAA basketball and have all but forgotten the NHL. March Madness they call it. It seems like every sports channel has dedicated itself to covering college hoops. Sad, sad, sad for hockey freaks like me.

But maybe this week’s consistently cold weather will have transformed my despair into delight?

Five minutes into my early morning walk, I stuff my ear buds into the pouch of my dark blue ESPN pullover. I can still hear Kelly Clarkson belting out "Miss Independent" as I stare at the frozen surface. Unlike last Saturday, when the ice was so fragile I dared not step on it and so clear I could see the bottom, this ice is fuzzy and hard. I take a tentative step onto my playground.

I stomp my right foot onto the ice. Nothing. So far so good. Walking along the pond’s perimeter without sensing any sign of doom, I survey the icescape: a country of its own. To the left, bumpy ice, perhaps frozen by a strong north wind, signal a roadblock to skating activity. A frozen-over fissure spans almost the entire length of this mini-country, warning me to stay away. Rows of crusty ice have merged in different regions, forming mountain ranges to challenge the most agile skater.

I move toward center ice, hopeful I’ll locate even a small area where I can practice. But even though the ice feels solid beneath me, it’s not suitable for skating, much less stickhandling.

Ping! A submarine’s sonar pierces the chill. The ice gods have discovered an intruder!

I stuff the urge to panic and force myself to shuffle, slowly, toward the safety of solid ground. Beneath me, the ice shifts, causing a subtle splintering sound. My heart threatens to leap from my chest as I reach the edge.

Ten minutes later, I’m still in suburbia, lengthening my stride up a steep incline, wanting to feel the burn in my legs. I can feel sweat staining my grey thermal top, as I take a left into a neighborhood where thin wooden shamrocks hang from tree branches, dangling in the breeze, announcing St. Patrick’s Day, still two weeks away.

I continue my hockey training with quick and long strides, breezing past mailboxes, addresses painted with numbers that make me think of Boston Bruins like Patrice Bergeron (37) and Nick Boynton (44), who’ll be at the Garden tonight taking on the Buffalo Sabres. My wife and I will be watching the game on NESN, which hasn’t ditched the B’s for basketball, from our heated home, now about two minutes away.

The Carpenters comfort me with "On Top of the World." I’m happy to have a passion, happy to be healthy. Happy to be dry. March Gladness.