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The Stand-up Goalie: Evolution of the Rink Rat

By Hans Eisenbeis

Is the rink rat an endangered species? I have to wonder.

Back in the day, roughly about the time when a Georgia peanut farmer was the leader of the free world, I used to get dropped off at the rink whenever it was convenient for my parents. That could mean three or four hours before practice – and hanging out for a few hours after practice, which is probably why I wasn’t home when the NHL called.

I never seemed to mind, though, because there was always a game to watch on the ice, or pucks to shag in the bleachers. Just when it might have gotten boring, there were other rink rats to pal around with, some of them budding young felons with clever ways to filch candy out of the machines with their skinny arms and tiny hands.

I remember my pal, Jimmy P., once brought a powerful magnet to the rink, and set it on the pinball machine. Every time the ball looked like it was going to drain, it got sucked right up by the magnet and banged against the glass – and Jimmy would then slide the ball back and forth through an  extra-credit gate until he’d rung up a dozen bonus games. It took us a while to realize that cheating sort of took the fun out of the game, but it was still pretty cool racking up three hours’ worth of freebies, while we waited for the sun to rise and our teammates to show up. 

I’m not sure what we did with our equipment this whole time, but I have a suspicion that we just dropped it wherever we wanted to, a habit that appears to be alive and well with the new generation.  I remember too that there were many spirited games of lobby hockey, lobby handball, lobby soccer, lobby wrestling and entry-way kickboxing.  These games too appear to be alive and well with kids these days, much to the chagrin of arena managers everywhere. 

I have to say that life circumstances have somewhat changed my perspective from the days of being a juvenile rink rat to being a full-grown one.

The other day, I was well into my third hour of hanging out at the rink when a group of Bantams came in the door, dropped their bags, magically produced a tennis ball and proceeded to play a game of street hockey right underneath a large, Day-Glo green sign that said, “NO FLOOR HOCKEY IN THE LOBBY OR ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE BUILDING.” 

This sign exists, in one form or another, in 99.99 percent of all rinks today. By the time a boy becomes a Bantam, he has been reading or seeing or at least hearing about this rule for more than a decade. He has never been to a rink where it is OK to do what he is doing, nor have his parents been to a rink where it is OK – and yet here comes the arena manager bearing the radically mind-blowing news that, after a first warning, the ball and the sticks would be confiscated, and they would be recoverable at some later, unspecified date for a discounted price via eBay or craigslist.

Now, I’m apt to give the Bantams some benefit of the doubt, because their brains are still forming and their moral codes are still a little scrambled and their hormones are raging so hard they have to use Google to find Google. Heck, most teenagers I know need to be reminded to wake up or they’d sleep right past puberty and young adulthood into middle age.

But when their parents act surprised or annoyed, it makes me want to take them by the collar of their custom-embroidered team spirit-wear and shake some sense into them. Do you let your kids play soccer in your kitchen, spit on your living room floor,  bludgeon your refrigerator door, drop used tissues and sock tape wherever they stand, scratch cuss words on the walls and pee all over the toilet seat? Why do these rules of basic decency – the kinds of quaint social norms that separate humans from, say, your average Holstein cow or Yorkshire pig – suddenly become unreasonable as soon as you’re within a few hundred feet of a Zamboni room?

Because here’s the deal:  Back in my rink-rat days, I was around the arena so much that the manager and I were on a first-name basis, the Zamboni driver knew my parents and the skate sharpener could identify my skates just by feel and smell. More than that, the rink really was like a second home, and if I peed on the toilet seat, there was a pretty good chance I’d be sitting in it later.

On the upside, if there was a team on the ice that needed a goalie, I got the nod. If a scorekeeper or a penalty box attendant or a net-mover was needed, they knew where to find a willing 12-year-old volunteer: at the vending machine with his hand stuck in the coin return.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, the rink is still at the center of our community, and it’s a good thing, too. In other parts of the country, we hear horror stories about how hockey really is a sport for only the super-wealthy.

In places like Chicago or Detroit, for example, team fees can cost $10,000 per year, and that’s pretty much for one reason: ice time at expensive, for-profit rinks. In other parts of the country, an hour of ice can cost $600 or $700.

Here in the State of Hockey, it’s more along the lines of $170. That’s because most of our rinks are community-owned and community-operated. They’re everywhere, and they’re not there to make money, but to support our kids and the game we all love.

It wouldn’t be a bad thing to spread some of that love to the building itself.

Since the beginning of the season this year, I’ve noticed one hockey dad who sits in the bleachers for about a half an hour, and then he leaves as soon as his player is off the ice.

And right where he’s been sitting, there’s a Miller bottle half filled with tobacco spit. I guess he expects it to walk itself over to the garbage can – the one right over there under the sign that says “No tobacco products and no alcohol.”  

Back in my rink-rat days, Jimmy and I would have found a way to recap that bottle and slip it back into the six-pack from which it came. And we would have had a good laugh about it with the Zamboni driver, too.

Hans Eisenbeis played goalie back when the pads and gloves came in one color (leather) and butterfly goalies were called “floppers.”