Nigel Aplin on serious shinny outdoor hockey

Wilson Hockey League is highlight of every Toronto winter

Adult Onset Outdoor Hockey: a personal story as told …

By Nigel Aplin
Sports Editor
True North Perspective

I never played organized hockey as a kid. Oddly, swimming was my winter sport from grade 6 through high school. In university, I mostly played squash in the winter.

I cannot remember where or how I learned to skate but I do remember my mother taking my sister and me to Bob Patrick’s Sports in St. Catharines, Ontario, to get “new” skates every couple of years at something called the “skate exchange”. I had hockey sticks for road hockey and somehow came to own a very stiff pair of 60’s style hockey gloves at some point in my childhood but I had never owned any real hockey equipment until the fall of 1991 when a friend named Wilson finally convinced me to try playing outdoor hockey once. I agreed to come out once, only because I didn’t think I would enjoy it and I wanted him off my back about it. He had started organizing weekly shinny games at various City of Toronto outdoor rinks that required an extensive and persistent working of phone lines every week to pester those of us in his rolodex.

I think we played at Jimmie Simpson rink on Queen Street East that first time. I was awful and I struggled mightily, It was an epic workout but I survived. I had no helmet, no shin pads and no jock. My feet were cold and uncomfortable in my ancient skates. I lurched around the ice trying not to get in the way. But it was ok somehow and Wilson praised my courage in coming out and I think I realized then that he was never going to let me slip out of his circle of weekly hockey phone calls. I was either going to have to avoid him completely or accept that I had unwittingly become a hockey player of sorts. I got some used shin pads, an old helmet and a jock at Play it Again Sports in December of 1991 and played with Wilson and the others each week through the rest of the winter without any serious injury. My skating improved a bit too.  

After a few weeks of the 1992-1993 season, I decided that a skate upgrade would probably make a big difference. I purchased the first pair of new skates I had ever owned at National Sports just after Christmas. After a painful period of working them in, my skating and my confidence improved. Wilson was able to book ice consistently on Thursday nights but at a different rink and at a different time each week. He dutifully called each of us every Thursday with the where and when information. We carried on that same way through the 1995-1996 season. By the fall of 1996, Wilson had married, had a baby on the way and had moved to Oakville. He made it known that he would be stepping back from his hockey organizing duties bit but would be still happy to play if someone else made arrangements and the phone calls (which soon transitioned to emails).

I decided to step up and contact the City of Toronto permit office to ask when the rinks were opening, and in the hopes of making the first booking. The permit officer asked me offhandedly if I had considered a seasonal weekly permit instead of a series of one-time reservations. There is an outdoor rink called Otter Creek about 500 metres from where I live but it had never been one of the 15 or so rinks Wilson had booked over the years. I said “how about Otter Creek on Thursday nights?” He said “Would 7.30 to 8.45pm work? That slot is available.” So I booked it, contingent on filing a permit application with all of our names and addresses etc. The application asked for the name of the league so I wrote “The Wilson Hockey League”. The permit was issued a week later. The Wilson Hockey League is now nearing the end of its 21st season at Otter Creek. The permit cost has risen from zero in the first couple of seasons to almost $2,000 this year. We play with goalies and full equipment. People watch us play every week. For us, it is the highlight of every Toronto winter.

I would characterize the hockey played in the Wilson Hockey League as Serious Shinny. It is, above all else, friendly and we don’t keep score (the goalies say that they do) but our games are fast and competitive. Every year, as some in the group retire or move away, we add new players who are usually younger, faster and more fit that those they replace. Those of us who are the league’s founding members are now in our early to mid-fifties and most of us have learned to play smarter than we did twenty years ago as the youngsters whirl and stick-handle around us. But we run the league so they show respect and deference to us. Such is the culture of hockey.

What I really wanted to write about - and I’m just getting to it now — is the degree of pleasure that our outdoor hockey brings us. The group, even as it changes from year to year, offers a wonderful camaraderie — but not in the macho male “locker room” sense; we share a good-spirited bonding which occasionally leads to what our parents may have called “horsing-around”. But some of us now bring our progeny who are impressionable adolescents or teenagers and we don’t have to adjust our conduct for them. We’re mature and self-censored. That’s what happens in your 50’s.

As for what happens on the ice, at various times throughout each season we battle wind, bitter cold, snow squalls and sometimes even rain but we still enjoy our share of perfect winter evenings with no wind and temperatures somewhere between minus 5 and plus 5 (the rink is artificially cooled). We have 20 non-goalie paying members signed up for the 16 week season but never do they all show up. Goalies, who must develop an intuitive sense of their position in the net as the creases are not marked, are the most difficult to recruit. In accordance with long-standing hockey tradition, our goalies do not pay fees. Rather, we go out of our way to accommodate them by picking them up, dropping them off and generally treating them like royalty. Ideally, we will have eight skaters on each side – five on the ice and three on the bench - but there are times when vacations, challenging weather conditions or the demands of a busy city life reduce our numbers to five or six or seven. These are times when we invite anyone else around the rink to join in, be they fast-skating teenagers, girls, boys, children or parents. The game adjusts itself to the varying skill levels of the participants, allowing even the slowest and least skilled players (like I was in 1991) to be part of the game.

The joy that our outdoor hockey brings us feels difficult to describe. When most of the city’s population is engaged in sedentary indoor activity, there we are on a cold winter night playing a game for fun, getting great exercise and enjoying a collective sense of friendship and solidarity. As long as the City of Toronto continues to offer me a permit each year, the Wilson Hockey League will endure.