Pond Hockey A Canadian Past Time All Should Enjoy when adventure traveling Canada
Updated: Nov 1, 2019
Not every Canadian grows up playing ice hockey on frozen ponds, but it’s not just unlived mythology either—many Canadians do play puck on a frozen pond or a lake up North, or at least at the outdoor “shinny” rinks in cities. While outdoor puck is considered amateur beside formal, organized ice hockey in leagues, for many reasons it’s actually the soul of the game.
For one, frozen ponds predate ice rinks. The first skating was on water that froze in winter. The indoor rink is an approximation of that. The origins of ice hockey, the roots, were formed outdoors. How exactly and where ice hockey started is disputed. Tolstoy’s 1877 masterpiece Anna Karenin contained literature’s first outdoor ice skating scene, and Russia has a vibrant love for hockey. Regions in Canada claim to have hosted the first outdoor puck, or at least a variant of modern hockey. Let regional historians squabble! Normal people should just celebrate hockey. Onward.
Today the cost of paying for rented ice, referees, a timekeeper and all that equipment is prohibitively expensive. On the pond all you need is skates, a stick and a toque—Canadian for a “winter hat”. The ice is just there on the pond, underneath the snow. Your rink will be as large as the space you’re willing to shovel. Do the work, you get to play.
Ice hockey with strangers is a ritual, and etiquette has formed around it. Before the game begins teams are made as everyone puts their stick in the centre, and one person tosses them randomly into two piles on opposite sides of the ice. All the players collect their stick, and sides are formed.
Since players barely wear protection, nobody raises the puck. Fast moving frozen rubber can knock out teeth. Even errant passes when raised can deflect upwards and do damage, so it’s not just about refraining from slap shots. There’s no goalie—to score, you just shoot the puck between two pylons (or two pairs of shoes, etc). Sometimes when a hockey net is available, people play “posts”, which means to score the puck must hit the crossbar or the post, ie the forward-facing metal rim of the net. If you’re playing posts it’s understood you’ll have to raise the puck, so you can’t shoot it until there’s no opposing player between you and the net.
Indoor puck can get chippy between strangers fast, but outdoor puck is a fun, leisurely game. There’s no Zamboni so the ice isn’t perfectly flat. There’s a reason why high-scoring pro NHL games are derided as “pond hockey”! Playing outdoors is fun because scoring is fun, so defence is an afterthought. Sometimes there are one or two jerks who get too intense in shinny and try to show off, or raise the puck or don’t pass it around, but for the most part it’s about enjoying the outdoors and getting some exercise. Usually, the really good players make sure everyone touches the puck, because nobody really cares about losing on the pond.
Shinny is also great because it’s so unregimented. It’s play. There’s no coaching, no defensive systems or schemes to implement. Some kids take hockey so seriously they do off-ice training, skate 6-7 days a week and learn rote hockey skills. Vintage NHL players like the legendary Bobby Orr just skated for hours outside with buddies, and developed their own style.
Shinny isn’t only free of coaching, it has no authority figures at all—no refs. It’s self-regulating. There are no penalty calls, you’re counted on to respect the rules and spirit of the game. And people do. This is a shared feeling that connects shinny players everywhere. No matter how good or bad you are at puck, if you simply honour this code, you’re a hockey player.
NHL players once came to pre-camp chubby after drinking beer all summer, and used preseason to get into shape. This is now unthinkable to young players trying to get drafted into the NHL, let alone already pro players. The pond hockey milieu was snuffed out of the NHL long ago, where competition is just too high and there’s serious money to be made. But that’s good: it makes for an infinitely better product to watch!
You don’t want to see fun on TV, you want great hockey. But when playing hockey in Canada, or trying to understand the roots of the game at a local level, nothing beats the ol’ pond.
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