Updated: Dec 12, 2021
It’s magical out here on the Lake of the Isles. There are fewer skaters than usual, perhaps because we are expecting a snowstorm to dump up to foot of snow on us, starting within the hour. Still, there are at least 25 of us. A little boy and his father are passing around a hockey puck. A young woman puts on her skates next to me, and I see her on the rink a few minutes later. Like me, she appears to be alone, just out to enjoy a quick turn on the ice. She’s not very good, but she’s purposeful and fairly coordinated. In the hockey area, a half dozen young men and boys have a pick-up game going, with the game adapting as players arrive and leave. Sometimes these pick-up games get pretty intense, but today’s game seems relaxed, almost lazy. A mother arrives with three little girls in tow—they can’t be more than six years old—and she laces up their skates one by one and sends them out onto the rink. They laugh and chatter away, falling down from time to time without the slightest concern. They skate for about fifteen minutes, then they return to the mom, who takes their pictures as they lie in the snow by the shore. They take off their skates and leave, mission accomplished. Over here are two women friends, perhaps college-age or a bit older, skating along and chatting. A little boy tears by with a hockey stick and puck. I watch with admiration as a young man swoops and twirls, now backwards, now forwards, in elegant, controlled spins, lost in his own thoughts. On other occasions, I have seen young lovers skating arm-in-arm; little children in snow-suits on their first skates; figure skaters doing jumps and spins; elderly people carefully but gracefully taking a circuit; and laughing adults having their first lessons.
It is a Saturday afternoon in March 2018. The temperature is just above freezing, and clouds cover the sky. I am wearing a down vest, a light hat, a scarf, and gloves over the usual jeans, shirt, and sweater. A strip of park runs around Lake of the Isles, with paths and open space, and beyond that there is a one-lane boulevard, designed to keep traffic slow and limited. On the low hills crowding the other side of the boulevard are some of Minneapolis’s most distinguished homes, many of them built in the first flush of the city’s wealth more than a century ago. You feel rich yourself, skating around the lake in the shadows of such tradition.
Less than ten miles away, as the crow flies, the Minnesota State High School Hockey tournament is under way in St. Paul. There, thousands of fans are cheering deliriously for their home town hockey teams. Tickets to the tournament are some of the hardest to get for any event in Minnesota, despite being played in the giant arena constructed for professional hockey. The teenagers playing in the tournament are good—really, really good. A few of them will become legends, in some cases because they go on to be professional hockey players, in other cases because of their performances during this one week of their lives. Minnesota calls itself the “State of Hockey,” and participating in the state hockey tournament is as authentic an experience of life in Minnesota as you can find.
What I am doing here on Lake of the Isles is not the stuff of legends, but it is also an authentic Minnesota experience. The Twin Cities are the only large metropolitan area in the United States where you can find public skating rinks on local lakes throughout the winter, and skating on them is one of life’s joys. My memories of skating right in this very spot go back at least 50 years. Although the world around me has changed almost out of recognition since then, skating on Lake of the Isles has changed not at all. There is still the warming hut on the shore maintained by the City (installed every December, removed every spring). Overhead lights illuminate the rink at night. The rink is in the same place, and just about the same size—an expanse of well over two acres, extending from shore to shore on a narrow finger of Lake of the Isles. The only difference I can discern is that the City now sets aside a portion of the rink for scratch hockey games, enclosed by waist high boards.
My memories of skating are almost all happy. I am seven or eight years old, here on this very rink. It’s a cold winter’s day, and the sun is going down. Although my family lives in St. Paul, we are visiting our cousins, who live a few blocks from Lake of the Isles. We have walked down to the rink, at least a half dozen of us, skates in hand. We have laced up our skates on the shore, and we have joined dozens of others on the rink. My toes gradually go numb from the cold as we skate around, grabbing hats, racing each other, playing crack-the-whip. At some point, an adult arranges a giant game of Pom Pom Pullaway, and a throng of children stands in a ragged line at one side of the rink. On the signal, we skate madly for the other side, trying to evade the person who is “It” in the middle. Most of us make it, but one or two get caught and now become “It” as well, joining in the task of catching others. From now on in gets harder and harder to make it across to safety. Within a few rounds, the hunters outnumber the hunted, until on the final round even the fastest and most agile skater is caught, and becomes “It” for the next round. We skate for hours, until at last we pull our skates off of frozen feet and trudge back to my cousins’ house for hot chocolate.
When I arrived at Princeton University in the fall of 1977, the East Coast seemed a long, long way from St. Paul. As we all looked for polite ways to learn about each other, my fellow students would often ask variations of “You’re from Minnesota. Do you play hockey?” I do not remember anyone asking me this question while I was growing up. Someone might have asked if you were on a hockey team, but it was a given that you played the game. Asking a boy from Minnesota whether he played hockey would be like asking a boy from Indiana whether he played basketball. You just grew up with it.
So, yes, I replied, I played hockey. My two brothers also played hockey. My best friend down the blocked played hockey, and so did the other boys in the neighborhood. I had cousins—lots of cousins—and all of those boys played hockey, too. (Some of the girls played hockey, too, and all of them skated. But it would be another twenty years or so before girls hockey became organized statewide at the high school level. After that, the girls quickly caught up, and Minnesotans now contribute an outsized number of players to our women’s Olympic hockey teams, just saw they do on the men’s teams.)
I have no recollection of learning how to play hockey, any more than I remember learning how to skate. Skates, sticks, and pucks were part of the detritus of youth. We broke the sticks, we lost the pucks in snowbanks. At Christmas, we would give each other hockey pucks; hockey pucks were the currency of boyhood friendships. Spring would come, and pucks would re-appears as the ice melted, to be hoarded for next season.
I am getting into my rhythm now on Lake of the Isles, and I have established a pattern. I skate the length of the rink in one direction, with the wind gently pushing on my back. When I reach the end, I make a sweeping turn and go back, with the wind now in my face. Muscle memory is returning, and I speed up, gaining confidence. I may decide to work on my backwards skating. If you skate enough, going backwards becomes as natural as going forwards, but it’s a secondary skill to the forward motion. It may look hard to a novice, but the concept is simple. To skate forward, you point your toes outward and start to walk. Your skates will automatically move off in separate directions, so you pick them up one at a time, letting the skate on the ice glide as you do so. Skating backwards is the same thing in reverse: you point your toes inward, and start moving backwards.
Everyone skates in Minnesota because winters are long and ice is everywhere. The park services in the Twin Cities and their suburbs maintain public rinks, but there are countless other rinks as well. Within the Twin Cities metropolitan area there are more than 100 lakes and many more ponds, streams, and sloughs, every one of them a potential skating rink. In addition, there are countless backyard skating rinks, some of them semi-professional efforts.
There could not have been a more hopeless or haphazard backyard skating rink than the one behind my boyhood home. Our house had a large backyard, and to the unpracticed eye it looked fairly level, but there is no better way for determining whether your backyard is truly level than to turn it into a skating rink. Water is ruthless in its determination to run down even the gentlest slope. One can understand why my father tried to make a backyard skating rink the first year we were in the house, but in retrospect the fact that he tried it year after year seems beyond quixotic. As the water proved, the far edge of our skating rink was about six inches lower than the edge nearest to the back door. Nonetheless, every year in December my father (aided in later years by me and my siblings) hauled out two-by-twelve boards and propped them up in the snow to establish the sides of the rink. He ran a long series of hoses from the laundry sink, through the basement hallway, under the ping-pong table, and out the back door. Then, standing just outside the door, with a spray nozzle attached to the hose, my father would ice down the skating rink. This went on for several weeks, every night, if the cold weather held—the colder the better, for purposes of laying down ice. Within a few years, Dad dragooned his children into icing duty as well. I have memories of spraying water onto the rink when the weather was well below zero, wearing my mother’s fur coat—the warmest garment in the house, as well as the most expensive—every inch of my skin covered by multiple layers, yet I was still ferociously cold. There was no way of holding the spray nozzle without water dripping onto your mittens and freezing your hands. If it was windy, the spray would blow back on you, putting a crust of ice on the fur. We took turns, each of us standing out there as long as we could, then handing off the hose and the fur coat to the next family member.
It was all in vain. There was no amount of water that we could poor onto the yard that would yield a flat, smooth skating surface. Some mornings, after a particularly long and cold night of icing, we could look out the window at the illusion of a smooth skating rink. At least the far edge, where the water had run downhill, would look like the surface of a frozen pond, even if the uphill portion of the rink was ragged and bumpy. But it was a mirage. The water would freeze on top, but just below the glass-like surface, the water would pool unfrozen as we sprayed it, and then during the night it would gradually leak out under the two-by-twelves, leaving pockets of air. The first person who skated over the surface would break through for two or three inches, often with a nasty fall, leaving a crater with shards of ice in it.
Still, we kept at it, until by January (again, if the cold weather held—a thaw was always disastrous) we had a frozen section of the backyard that resembled a rink enough so that we could get out and skate around. You can learn a lot by skating on a surface like that, though not much of it is very useful later in life. Among other things, you develop the ability to maintain a mental map of the rink, so that you can skate on the smooth areas and avoid the bumps and pits. Also, you learn what it is like to skate on an incline, drifting downhill in one direction, pumping a little extra on the uphill. And you learn how to stay on your feet as you skate over ridges and bumps created by water as it cascades and freezes down a slope.
Come to think of it, the first skill—the ability to create a mental map of an uneven skating rink—is actually fairly valuable. Out here on the Lake of the Isles, I am a 60 year old man who needs to stay on his feet. Falling while skating is about the same as falling on the sidewalk. At 60, it seems like a long way down, and the knocks and bruises you get on your hands, wrists, and knees can take distressingly long to heal. Once I have my skates on, I push out cautiously onto the ice with my eyes down and forward. I need to do two things: I need to stay on my feet as I re-learn the feel of my skates, and I need to avoid the pits and crevices that develop on a rink built over a frozen lake. The first comes gradually, but steadily. My tentative, awkward steps evolve into increasingly smooth strokes. I start to cross over on the turns, accelerating as I come around the curve. I swing my arms to speed my pace. Skating is like water-skiing or playing the violin, or doing anything else that you learned to do long ago with some facility, but haven’t done regularly for years. You can do it right away, if poorly, and you can regain a significant measure of competence with a little practice, even if you will never be as good as you used to be.
Avoiding the pits and crevices in the ice requires a different skill set. As you gain confidence and accumulate laps, you make mental notes of where the ice is rough or pitted, and where it is smooth and clean. The most dangerous places are along the cracks that form as the ice on the lake heaves and splits. The park employees come out and maintain the rink, shoveling off new-fallen snow and periodically spraying the rink with water from a hose connected to a fire hydrant, but heavy use, and the natural movement of ice on a lake, will always open new cracks. These can be as small as a few inches long and a quarter inch deep (safely ignored), or they can be several yards long, an inch or more across, and plenty deep enough to catch the blade of an ice skate and send you tumbling into a hard fall. And so, the skills you learned in the backyard of your youth come in handy as you make your circuits on the lake, automatically weaving your way around the treacherous areas.
Once our backyard rink was serviceable, the season would start. Friends and relatives would come over, and we’d play scratch hockey games. Irregular in shape, dangerous underfoot, and laughable in quality, the rink was good enough for us. I’ve heard that the South American soccer players have the best skills and most creative tactics, not in spite of, but because of, the forced improvisational nature of their play in the favelas. We did not produce any hockey Peles or Maradonas on our backyard rink, but we learned a lot about skating, passing, dribbling, shooting, and defending.
Our Geist cousins had the real deal when it comes to backyard rinks. They lived in the suburbs, and their house backed up against a wide, lazy stream. It was shallow, and it froze early every winter. By the time Christmas came they had a full rink, and they kept it in pristine shape all winter, shoveling and icing it regularly. There were six Geist boys, all of them big and strong and coordinated. My brothers and I never progressed beyond pick-up hockey, but the Geists took it all the way to college and, in one case, beyond. Two of them played for Yale and Dartmouth. Another captained his team at St. Olaf College. The most talented Geist of all didn’t play in college, but he had an epic high school career and was a standout in the 1978 state tournament as a junior.
Since I was a little boy, my family and the Geists have shared a retreat on a lake three hours north of the Twin Cities. It’s not much of a lake judging by its size or beauty, but it’s perfect for us. The original cabins were not winterized, and when I was growing up we used them only in the summer. But in 1999 the Geists built a new, year-round place just down the shore, with a generous layout for sleeping large numbers. It soon became a tradition to go up to the Geists’ for New Year’s Eve. The lake is solidly frozen by then, and we always clear off the snow for a skating rink. The Geists can still school the rest of us in pick-up hockey games, but the competition has mellowed into a good-natured scrimmage. A generation of younger cousins and second-cousins comes out as well, some of them expert skaters, some of them just passable, but it’s a sweet and happy tradition for everyone. Some years it’s brutally cold, and some years the snow is so deep that we are able to clear only a small area for skating, or only narrow paths that loop around and reconnect in a maze. Once every decade or so, there is no snow at all on the frozen lake for New Year’s, and when that happens you can skate anywhere on the lake; anywhere at all. “Wild ice,” they call it, and it is an unforgettable experience to skate across a smooth, clear northern lake.
As I said, I don’t remember learning to skate, but I know how it happened. In the first house my parents owned, my father made a rink in the backyard. That backyard was a lot smaller than the one I described earlier, and a lot flatter, too. From old family photographs, I know that my parents put me and my brothers in skates before we were in kindergarten, and gave us tiny wooden chairs to push around the rink. Those chairs followed the family from that first little house, to a larger one near by, and finally to the enormous house that held, in the end, our parents, seven children, and numerous guests and lodgers who stayed anywhere from one night to several years at a time. All seven of the kids learned to skate by pushing the same little wooden chairs on backyard rinks.
In Minnesota, there is an unbroken continuum from backyard rink to professional hockey. The high school jocks who are competing in the state tournament over in St. Paul probably all learned to skate more or less the same way I did. But nowadays, as with all sports it seems, kids get sucked into organized hockey at a frighteningly young age. There are leagues for boys and girls as young as six years old, and a ruthless winnowing process starts right away. If a child shows a modicum of ability and determination (or if the child’s parent thinks so), he or she is swept into an ever-escalating system of practices, teams, tournaments, and training camps. For a kid (or a parent) who dreams of a college scholarship or a professional career, disappointment is almost certain to come at some point. I can only hope that it doesn’t spoil for them the joy of lacing up skates and gliding around an outdoor rink when they are 60 years old.
The arc of my hockey career ended early. There was no organized hockey in the school I attended until Seventh Grade. Until then, I was strictly a backyard hockey player. Nonetheless, I was not deterred from trying out for my middle school team, and I found myself, on the first day of practice, trying to figure out how to put on the equipment without looking like a complete rookie. Until then, my equipment consisted of nothing more than skates and a hockey stick. Now I had hockey gloves, a helmet, a mouthguard, a jersey, big fat hockey shorts held up by suspenders, knee and shin guards, and long stockings to hold them in place. I was out of my depth before I left the locker room. Still, I hung in there for a few weeks. I was as good a skater as the other boys—better than average, in fact—and I had decent skills with the stick and puck from my backyard days. I had one other minor advantage as well; I play hockey left-handed. (I cannot explain this. I am absolutely right-handed in almost everything I do. However, in hockey, in water-skiing, and in my few forays with a surf board, I am “goofy-footed,” which is to say, a lefty.) A left-handed hockey player has a slight advantage over a right-hander when playing on the left side of the rink, and can be a useful substitute on the bench.
Between my decent skating and stick-handling skills, and my left-handed orientation, I was put in the line-up to play in our first game. I wasn’t on the first line, to be sure, but in hockey the players come in and out of the game regularly, and everyone gets a turn. When my turn came, I sped out to my position at left wing. We hadn’t played for more than a few seconds, though, when the ref blew the whistle and stopped the game. We readied ourselves for the face-off, the ref dropped the puck, and the game resumed—for a few more seconds. Then the ref blew the whistle again, stopped the game again, and we had another face-off. I don’t know how many more times this happened, but it didn’t go on long. I was sent by the ref, or called by the coach, back to our bench, and I took my seat for the rest of the game. I knew that I was somehow responsible for the fiasco, but I had no idea what I had done wrong.
Our coach did not break it to me gently. He did not turn the experience into a “teaching moment.” No. He shouted down the bench at me, in front of all my peers: “You’re off-sides. Don’t you know what the blue line is for?” It was a rhetorical question, as it was perfectly obvious that I had no idea about off-sides or blue lines. I had a pretty good set of basic hockey skills, but no one had taught me the rules of the game, and there is nothing intuitive about the off-side rule or the blue line. In fact, it is damned complicated, and it took me several more years to learn how it worked—several more years, because I never played organized hockey again. I quit the team the next day.
All of which seems OK to me now, looking back. Even in the 1970s, middle school hockey was serious business in Minnesota, and I had come to the organized game too late. Moreover, I was not destined to be a standout athlete in hockey or in any other sport. I look like a better athlete than I actually am. What I actually am is a fairly healthy, fairly coordinated, fairly strong person who likes to play games but lacks the skill and drive to be anything more than a putz at anything. This has served me well in life, and I have happily participated at the putz level in just about every sport you can name.
In any event, big changes were coming to my school’s hockey program. Our small private school was an unlikely candidate to become a hockey powerhouse. It catered primarily to the wealthy families of St. Paul and its suburbs. In the early decades of the last century, when competition was less ferocious, St. Paul Academy had been a regular contender for the state championship, mainly by virtue of being one of the only schools that played organized hockey. By the 1970s, SPA still occasionally produced some good hockey teams, but there was nothing special about the program, and under normal circumstances SPA would have remained as obscure in hockey as it has in almost every other sport. But there were two things that caused the school to develop, almost overnight, one of the best hockey programs in the state.
The first thing was that the school built an indoor skating rink on campus in 1967. Indoor skating rinks are commonplace for Minnesota schools today, but in the 1970s having a year-round, indoor skating rink gave the school a significant competitive advantage because it extended the season for practices. The second and more important thing was that the school had a coach. Mike Foley joined the faculty at SPA in 1968 as the Shakespeare teacher and boys hockey coach, and eventually became legendary in both roles. Starting in the early 1970s, the children of St. Paul’s wealthy old families were joined by a cohort of strapping young athletes recruited by Mr. Foley to play serious hockey. The school had never seen anything like it. The new kids seemed bigger and stronger than the rest of the students (because they were). They were rowdier and more rough-hewn, too, and they were exceptional hockey players. Without ceremony, they muscled aside the members of the existing hockey team and began to beat all comers. If I had learned about the blue line and the off-sides rule in middle school and stayed on the hockey team, I would have been road kill with the arrival of the new kids. As it was, I joined their cheering fans. Although we were never going to be as good as the best big public schools, SPA rose quickly to the top of the private school rankings. I was there when the school won the state independent school championship in 1974—the last year, as it turned out, that the independent schools had their own tournament.
I have since come to understand that the wider school community was far from unanimous in its approval of Mr. Foley’s innovations. The parents of the boys who lost their spots on the hockey team were among the first to complain, but others watched with dismay as the “Hockey Jocks” took over the apex of the social ladder as effortlessly as they took over the skating rink. Barbarians had breached the wall of St. Paul’s safe little private school. Properly-raised daughters were sitting next to great, swaggering athletes in Mr. Foley’s Shakespeare class, with predictable results. There were minor scrapes with the law, and a few fistfights at school. Weekend parties got rowdier, and there was one horrific post-party car crash.
If the rest of us were impressed and intimidated by these gods that walked among us, we also retained a semblance of class and intellectual smugness about them. Mr. Foley could be as tough in class as he was on the rink. If his students were unprepared or inattentive, he was fond of quoting from Julius Caesar: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things.” So often did he use this line that it boomeranged back at his hockey program, revised by the other students to: “You stones, you blocks, you worse than senseless Hockey Jocks.” Stereotypes, of course, can be both inaccurate and offensive. One of the so-called Hockey Jocks was not only the best athlete in my class, but also an excellent student, a natural leader of the entire student body, the owner of a fine tenor voice in the choir, and a kind-hearted friend to me and many others.
The halcyon days of Mr. Foley’s hockey program lasted for about five years, but the situation was inherently unstable. Parents complained. Cultures clashed. Foley eventually left for bigger things, becoming an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota under Herb Brooks of 1980 Olympics fame. More and more schools built indoor rinks, and without a rink advantage or a marquee coach it was impossible to sustain the quality of the program. Within a decade or so, the school’s hockey program had reverted to the mean. Some wistful alumni still talk of recreating a preeminent hockey program, perhaps starting with a new, bigger, better ice rink, but their hopes are part Cargo Cult, part Field of Dreams.
The old indoor rink still stands at SPA. In addition to my humiliation about the off-side rule (the only unhappy memory I have about skating), I have other memories of the rink during my years at the school. There was the thrill of watching our team, of course, but I also loved the open skate periods on the weekends. Hundreds of members of the community would skate around the rink, visiting, playing games, competing for attention, testing the rules of decorum. Parents would act as informal chaperones. I recollect seeing two of St. Paul’s richest and most well-respected citizens skating around the rink among the rest of us, their strides smooth and powerful with muscle memory from their own days on the SPA hockey team. Years later, and now years ago, I took my own little daughters to the SPA rink to teach them how to skate. I can still see them clinging to the side boards, and I can still feel their little hands in mine. It is much more than just a skating rink; it is a community resource, an ark of memories, and a siren call to future generations of skaters. Nevertheless, it is well past its expected demolition, date, and its outlook is uncertain. The school has raised tens of millions of dollars in the last fifteen years for math, science, and the performing arts, but no one has stepped forward to finance the construction of a new indoor rink.
Out here on Lake of the Isles, I am alone and associating freely with my memories. I am in kindergarten behind the brick walls of the Convent of the Visitation, which was located at the time in one of St. Paul’s oldest neighborhoods. The nuns have made a backyard skating rink, and we are having a race. I have skates on, and I have pushed the tiny wooden chair around the rink at home enough to stay on my feet, but I don’t really know how to skate. At the signal I take off, running on the insteps of my feet, the blades of my skates splayed out to the sides. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t even skating to be honest, but I win the race.
Now I am a sophomore at Princeton University, on Lake Carnegie at the foot of campus. I have a crush on one of my classmates, and I will carry a torch for this girl for most of my college years, but today we are skating amiably together on the lake, on ice so thin that it sags and creaks as we go over it, brown water oozing through the cracks. She has several years of figure skating lessons in her background, and every once in a while she does a simple twirl or jump that makes my heart skip a beat.
Five years later, I am skating on a pretty little public rink in downtown Minneapolis, on a break from my law school studies. A film crew arrives with a local TV reporter. I watch as she puts on skates and glides out unsteadily toward me. She asks to take my arm, and we skate around while the TV crew sets up for a slice-of-life bit for the nightly news. She is a stunning vision and I am smitten, but as I begin to steer the conversation toward asking for a date she lets me down gently with a casual reference to her boyfriend.
Five years further down the road, and I am skating on the stream behind the Geists’ house with Francine. She has only skated a few times in her life, but she has natural grace and coordination. It is late December, getting dark, and snow is falling. Francine has come home with me for the holidays, and everyone expects us to get engaged. She is as lovely as the winter sunset, and we skate along hand in hand until we are under a little bridge. And there, with the snow falling around us, we stand in each other’s arms. Although I will not propose to her until a few days later, on New Year’s Eve, we both understand there is something about this moment that is as profound and permanent as a formal proposal.
Now I am Yosemite National Park, another five years later. Francine and I have come for a few days of winter vacation while our young daughters are with their grandparents. It is evening, and she has returned to the lodge, but I am out on the park’s skating rink, the only person there. Back and forth I go in rented skates, with the walls of the canyon on either side and the moon overhead, turning figure eights and taking deep breaths of the mountain air. I cannot believe that I have this gorgeous night, and all its beauty, entirely to myself.
In my life, I have moved away from Minnesota three times, but each time I have returned. My roots are deep here. Francine and I raised our three girls in the Twin Cities. Of my six siblings, four live within an hour’s drive, and many of my cousin still live in Minnesota as well, including five of the seven Geist cousins. Other places have mountains and oceans that we cannot match, but Minnesota is beautiful to me. And as I skate around the rink on the Lake of the Isles, I know that this is my home, and I am lucky to be here.