Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Little Rink Around the Corner

Every four years, the Olympics turn me into a couch potato.  Of course, I look forward to the skiing but I live for the ice hockey. In my odd sports path to the mountains of New Jersey, I've take the strangest of routes. Hockey is my favorite sport to play and the Olympics, my favorite showcase for the sport. I have a weird, connected history there.

I sometimes imagine how different my life would have been if my parents had raised me rebuilding car engines or sailing or cycling. But they chose to drag me out on the ice, on a pond in Dauberville, Pennsylvania, sometimes kicking and screaming, but always freezing in the cold. The given with skating is to have ice thick enough for skating it has to be bone-chilling cold. I remember the attempts, well-intended I’m sure, when my parents tried to get us to take a sip of brandy because it would “keep us warm”—that was like forcing castor oil on us.  But I also remember that we always refused the stuff and wound up on the ice anyway—chilled to the bone.

The building that housed the rink—2008 photo

Where we played hockey in Reading was just a few blocks from the original Boscov’s store. Now it’s a giant chain but then it was a short turn from the corner diner. Turn right you’re at Boscovs. Turn left and just before you hit Albright College, you had to pass McKellen’s rink. The McKellen’s were interesting people. Leila and Gorden, Sr.—nobody called him Gordonopened the rink in the 50s. I was stunned to find a 1955 photo on the internet of Tuffy standing in front  of the “ice skating studio.” There was no truth to the rumor that he was a Munchkin in the Wizard of Oz but then you couldn't help wondering when you saw his underwhelming, less-than-five-feet-of-him-stature. But he was called “Tuffy” for a reason. Devilishly handsome—and you never saw him not smiling—you knew, deep down, that you didn't want to meet him in a dark alley. He seemed to be one, huge, muscle and he gave off the aura that packed in that smallish frame was immense stored power.

Tuffy met Leila, his beautiful wife, when she was skating in the Ice Follies and he was an acrobat act with his brother, Gil. They could do a hand-to-hand handstand on ice. Let’s think about that a moment. Picture Gil on skates, his hands strait up in the air. Now picture Tuffy upside down his hands straight down, “standing” on top of Gil’s hands. On ice, moving. Whaaaaaat?
In this photo they are not doing their handstand, but that trick is listed in Ripley's "Believe It or Not."

Tuffy and Leila settled down in Reading (for God knows what reason) and they opened a small rink. Their son, Gordie, became our Men’s National Champion figure skater and represented the US at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics where he came in fourth.
The rink in 1955- that's Tuffy in front

Sometime in 1962, the McKellens decided to start a youth hockey program and put an ad in the Reading Eagle which my mother saw and immediately signed up my older brother. He was three years older at 14 and, for a winter, my younger brother and I ate our hearts out watching Phil play hockey. The following year, Dennis and I were primed for the “world’s fastest game” (I laugh when I hear lacrosse called that—my apologies to my lacrosse friends). In the rink there was a large, framed photo, of Gordie with blades on his baby shoes. He must have been 11 months. He was being held up between his mother and father as they squatted on the ice. I think that photo put ideas in my mom's head. We were all on skates by our third birthday.
In 1976, the sign read "future home" and we were thrilled.

We played from October to April, every Sunday (except holidays) There were four teams, each with six players. Every sixth week you had to play goal, which I hated and proved myself to be worthless. I once gave up 14 goals, most on breakaways by John Dillingham, a 3-year older and very skilled player. If I hadn't given up 14 goals to John, I believe the most goals I would have yielded would have been 8-10. The goal had yellow tape 15 inches up each post. Shots above the imaginary line were disallowed. John didn't need to go high on me—I had enough holes already close to the ice.

During the winter of 1963, we played every Sunday—figure about 28 Sunday games and we also played on a road team that went 15-1-2. If you don’t count road team practices, we played 46 games and traveled all around southeast Pennsylvania. My favorite games were the ones played in Hershey Arena and at the private prep school in Pottstown, The Hill School (think Choate and Exeter).

 Our team, with 16-year-olds and 13-year-olds trashed their high school prep team.

Then we moved to hockey’s wasteland—New Jersey. I left a system where we played about 50 times a year to a place that had two ice rinks in all of northern New Jersey and no hockey programs. To boot, nobody seemed to know how to skate. That was obvious the first winter we found the local ponds filled with kids who could just barely stand up, let alone play hockey. To us, it was a joke. Kids had heard of hockey and they owned sticks purchased at the local hardware store but they were clueless how to dribble or carry the puck.

In this waste land, taking your skates to a hardware for sharpening was making a death wish for your blades. Skates not sharpened at a rink were doomed to the ignorance of whomever wasn't busy selling snow shovels and nails to waiting customers. My first sharpening at the hardware store in Hillsdale was my last and it almost cost my high school a victory. I spent two periods scrapping the edge off my blades on the wooden boards until I could dull them enough to get on the ice to tie and then score the winning goal, both in the last two minutes of the game.
My hockey-rabid family moved to a hockey wasteland and had to wait three years for hockey to catch on. The New York Rangers were on television every Saturday night so the locals had no excuse of not knowing the game. In Pennsylvania we did not have hockey on TV but were lucky that the McKellens came to town. There were lots of hockey programs in Pennsylvania in places like Hershey, Philadelphia, Lancaster, Palmyra, Middletown, Pottstown, Wyomissing, Conshohocken and Wissahickon - that was our road schedule. Northern New Jersey had a rink in Westwood (small and square) and another in South Orange. The next closest rinks were Morristown (an hour to the west), Brick Township, down the Shore, and at Low Tor, near Haverstraw, a 45-minute drive to the north.

We became big fish in a very small pond. It was like we were playing basketball, seven-footers against midgets. My younger brother and I would go on a pond with at least 40 kids playing hockey, and he and I could play keep away. Nobody could take the puck from us. It was weird. This was our sport. Hockey was year-around for us. During the summer we varnished and waxed wooden boards so we could practice “lifting” the puck and honing our shot. A friend of ours, a very good lacrosse player, moved to Colorado. One of his first days at high school, the football coach asked him in the hall what sport he played and he answered “lacrosse” and the coach said, “what’s that?” We understood that and empathized.

The McKellens moved to Lake Placid the year after we moved from Reading. Their son outgrew the Reading rink and commuted to Philadelphia every day to practice his figures. The McKellens opened a lodge where they boarded skaters and other training Olympians since Lake Placid had all of the facilities from the 1932 Olympic games still in use. We traveled there every year for the days after Christmas until New Year’s skiing, tobogganing, X-country skiing, and bobsledding.

My brother, Phil, survived his ride in 1967.

 My brother Phil was the lone bobsledder, deciding to take a chance and put his life in the hands of a brakeman and a steer man, who agreed to take two passengers for ten dollars. Phil said that was better than any roller coaster ride he had ever taken before and I imagine that has held up to this day.

Part of the fun of staying with the McKellens was meeting the Olympians-in-training. We could extract all sorts of trade secrets from ski jumpers and bobsledders. We also met several nationally-ranked skaters. By Sapporo, we knew or met most of the national team. The TV room of the lodge had an entire wall of glass casement displaying all of Gordie’s trophies. Of course, the best one was the huge cup he received as National Senior Champion.

When Lake Placid placed the successful bid for the 1980 games, we were ecstatic. Lake Placid was (and is) the perfect place to stage the games. Our favorite Olympic sport to be played in our favorite place. Hockey and Lake Placid, to that point, was our family’s guilty little secret. Our friends had no idea of the special meaning for us of  having the games in Lake Placid. When you consider the Miracle on Ice occurred during that Olympics, our enjoyment was taken to  a whole new level.
This is how we all felt about the Russians in 1980
Every four years, all these memories get dredged up. When memories are so deep-rooted, how could they not surface? I don’t care now about the hockey games  as deeply as I did when Russia dominated North American hockey with their skewed rules and unfair competitive advantages. True. I do prefer gold medals to silver or bronze, or in this year, no medal at all.

Back then, during the 70s, it was sweet to triumph despite all odds. It was great when the Philadelphia Fliers crushed the Soviet Union after they were having their way with the rest of the NHL. Only the Canadians and the Buffalo Sabers put up any kind of fight—the rest of the NHL got outright embarrassed. Being from the Philly area, you can imagine our chests being puffed out when the Fliers won. When the Fliers seemed assured of victory,  a fan held up a sign I’ll never forget. It read “Bring on the Martians.”

 But Lake Placid, our winter home away from home, and our favorite sport—that was the absolute best. Of course we believed in miracles; where else could the greatest upset in sports history occur?

Author’s note: Lake Placid has an interest in the 2026 Olympics. Cross your fingers.


  1. Ice hockey is certainly in your blood and it's no wonder you've done so well at it. I can see you forgave your parents for dragging you out to the ice at a young age. A very interesting post Greg. Thank you.

  2. I just came across this while searching for more information on McKellen's rink where I skated as a young girl. You might get a kick out of a photo I just put up on Flickr!