Many of us have played hockey in one form or another, be it on the ice, the street or on the floor of a recreation center. And very often we didn’t have access to or could afford regulation equipment. So since necessity is the mother of invention we fashioned home-made goalie pads out of pillows and old rugs and built goals from garbage cans, PVC piping or two-by-fours and chicken wire. For pucks, we used whatever we had on hand; an old tennis ball, a rounded block of wood or a taped up whiffle ball.
But it’s doubtful that any of us had to go to the extremes that some of the old pros did while growing up during the Great Depression. If you read the biographies of many of the old-time NHL’ers you’ll come to appreciate how much they loved the game and that they too had to improvise. Their pick-up games were played on frozen streets, ponds and rivers in temperatures well below freezing. They wore hand-me-down skates that were far too big for them and protected their shins with old newspapers or magazines taped to their legs. And very often an appropriately shaped tree branch was used in place of a stick.
But what has always intrigued me about these tales was what they used for pucks. If they weren’t lucky enough to have an actual puck, they used blocks of wood or stone. But often depending on their location, they were forced to use “road apples”. Call them what you will, “road apples” or “horse chestnuts”, they were frozen horse droppings and they became a necessary part of many a hockey player’s early career.
Hall of Famer Emile “The Cat” Francis was one of those youngsters. The former NHL goaltender, coach and general manager grew up in North Battleford, Saskatchewan where the temperature was consistently below zero for much of the winter and he has fond memories of frozen streets, frozen horse turds and black eyes.
Emile Francis: “When we were kids it was during the Depression and the farmers would come in every Saturday to shop and they wouldn’t come in with cars or trucks, they would come in with a team of horses pulling their sleigh.
So it would be getting dark and we would follow them and of course the horses had a go to the bathroom. This was about half a block from where I lived. We’d go out and gather them up and hide them in a snowbank and the next day they’d be frozen solid. We did that for at least two or three years.
So this one Sunday the guys on our block were playing the guys from another block and we were having a hell of a game and one of those guys shot that frozen horse turd and hit me right between the eyes. Well when I woke up Monday morning I had the nicest set of black eyes I ever had. It was like getting hit with a rock.
So I went to school on Monday morning, it was a Catholic school run by nuns. So I go in and they used to line us up in the basement before we went up to class and the principal spotted me right away. She came over and she said ‘what happened to you over the weekend?’ I said ‘I got hit.’ She said ‘oh you got in trouble again?’ and I said ‘oh no I got hit’ and she says ‘well what did you get hit with?’ Now I didn’t want to tell her that I got hit with a frozen horse turd so I just said I got hit. I never did get a chance to say what I really wanted to say. But those were the best two black eyes I ever had I’ll tell you.
We played on the street, it was like ice. There was an open air rink about two blocks from where I lived. I would put my skates on and skate to the rink on the road because there was ice on the road and you could skate on it.
And of course every home had their own little rink in the backyard. Where I came from wasn’t the richest area of the town I’ll tell you that. Closer to the city was where all the doctors and dentists were. They all had nice rinks in the backyard and they had nice things. I’d arrange games for my little team up the other end of town and we never ran out of pucks. We’d get resupplied on the way over there. We’d follow a horse and take as much was we could carry. We had a lot of fun.”
Those were tough times, but so were the young men who would go to such great lengths to play the game they loved. Some even tough enough to make it to the NHL.