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Skating on thin ice

 

It used to be that winter meant gliding on frozen ponds, but recent warming and

commercial rinks have changed the tradition

 

By John Pike, Globe Correspondent, 1/9/2000

 

Ice skating on lakes and ponds during winter vacation has been a Massachusetts tradition, romanticized by Currier and Ives, celebrated on holiday cards, and passed down through fireside tales.

 

Thirty years ago, during the era of hockey great Bobby Orr, who helped spur a local hockey renaissance, smooth and solid ice on Wayland's Dudley Pond would attract hundreds of skaters and hockey players. Entire families, without cost, would be playing together, enjoying a cold winter day, breathing the fresh air, avoiding bumps and lily pads. And if there was snow on the ice, skaters brought shovels to clear a small rink.

 

But not anymore.

 

By Christmas Day, the ice on Dudley Pond, like bodies of water across the region, could not have been better. It was smooth, black, solid, and snowless. School was out. But only a few lonely skaters took advantage.

 

The majority of the skaters last week were either adults of the Bobby Orr generation or very young children. Few, if any, high school or college-age skaters were on Dudley Pond during the school break.

 

''Years ago, there used to be an awful lot more people skating on ponds,'' said Chris Woodcock of Wayland, a skating enthusiast for more than 40 years. There would be skating parties late into the night at Wayland's Mill Pond, with hot cocoa being served. Now, Woodcock said, it is rare to see a hockey game being played.

One problem has been the strange warming trend across the region. During the 1978 and 1979 seasons, Mill Pond was open for 69 days, compared with only three days during 1998 and 1999, said Bill Kilcoyne, superintendent of the Wayland Parks and Recreation Department. And with the latest streak of warm weather predicted to last through early in the week, Dudley Pond won't be safe for skaters until a blast of winter comes.

 

Cliff Wedlock of Wayland, who played for the Cochituate Hockey Club in the 1930s on an outdoor rink, said, ''It seemed that every year you could skate on a pond in the Wayland area by Thanksgiving, which you sure cannot do now.''

At the same time, there are many more artificial rinks today, said Woodcock.

Standing inside the rinks of New England Sport Center in Marlborough, Jimmy Aiken of Winchester said children's hockey leagues now meet four or five times a week, instead of just once years ago. If children play in a league today, they do not have time to skate on a pond.

 

The greater interest in hockey on commercial rinks is part of a trend toward organized sports and away from loosely organized pickup games, said Kilcoyne.

People are looking for structured programs, Kilcoyne said. Little League is popular, but when the organized teams are not there, the field is devoid of pickup games.

As a result, said Kilcoyne, families are spending less time skating together. And, he said, other benefits are being lost.

 

In at least one Massachusetts youth soccer league, officials have begun to discourage the competitive nature of tournaments, viewing it as detrimental to a child's development.

 

On the pond, teams rarely win or lose, since scores are rarely tracked. Anyone can be a star, they say; pond skaters often score goals against semiprofessional hockey players out for a good time. And no one rides the bench.

Paul Sweeney of St. Stephan, New Brunswick, said it is more fun to play hockey on a pond than on a commercial rink because ''the play is the thing.'' He said skaters play pond hockey for the love of the game, and they can play all day if they choose, or take as many breaks as they wish.

 

Some say it is hockey at its purest and best.

 

One factor in the reduced numbers of pond skaters in recent years may be parents' fears of the dangers of being on a frozen lake.

Although Maryellen Burns of Attleboro skated on ponds as a child, she said she will not allow her young children to skate on natural ice because she fears they will fall through. ''It is safer on a rink,'' she said. ''I have more control of where they are.''

Dorothea Everett of Franklin said she discourages her children from skating outside even if she sees dozens of people skating because ''with all that weight on the ice, it is ready to go.'' Everett also noted that one part of a pond could be safe, but another could have running water and be unsafe.

 

Kim O'Keefe of Brighton, who played hockey with her friends at Dudley Pond using a roll of tape as a puck, said some parents today are overcautious. If parents teach their children to use common sense, the dangers are minimal and should not keep them from being on ponds, O'Keefe said.

 

Years ago many children became something akin to ''junior meteorologists'' and ice experts, learning the weather patterns that produce safe ice. Sometimes, skating specialists say, people mistakenly believe the ice is unsafe because it is often thinner at the edges, where light is refracted upward from the bottom and melts the ice. Also, when the ice is thickening it cracks from expansion, not from overweight, they said. People will sometimes skate with as little as 2 inches of solid black ice.

Kilcoyne said he waits until there is 4 to 6 inches of black ice on Mill Pond before he declares it safe for skating. He said he does so because ''on a warm day, with lots of people skating, you could lose a couple of inches in a matter of hours.''

If the ice is not black, he said, there should be additional inches of ice. Kilcoyne urges people to be very careful, citing news articles of children who have drowned.

But Woodcock said he believes that because of liability, Wayland officials often wait too long to declare Mill Pond safe for skating. ''They wait until you can drive a tank out there before Wayland says it is safe,'' Woodcock said. ''They err on the side of safety. Wayland officials could be more creative.''

 

Although Wayland still allows people to skate on its ponds, some area municipalities prohibit pond skating for liability reasons.

 

But Mike Harn of Franklin, who said he dislocated a knee by hitting a crack in the ice, insists that his love of pond skating is undimmed: ''It is the funnest thing in the world to play hockey on a pond.''

 

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 1/9/2000.

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.