Archive for Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Sports writer relishes winter break in Minnesota

January 2, 2008

My athletic career ended five years ago. Since I graduated high school I have not participated in any organized sport, succumbing instead to the sedentary life of a future sports journalist.

For one month every year since I started college at the University of Kansas, however, that changes. I am again an athlete. I'm talking about winter break in my hometown of Brainerd, Minn.

I compete voraciously with friends; not in front of crowds or for trophies.

Rather, this competition stems from boredom and leads to bragging rights.

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes and endless winters, hockey is king. Growing up, I was a physical defenseman, protecting our goalie from the assault of the opposing offense. We played in finely manicured hockey arenas around the state.

Now I play a plodding, wheezing forward-there are no defenders or goalies in pond hockey. We put together games on the lake behind my house or the neighborhood rink. Pads are no longer required. Instead we wear stocking caps or those Russian winter hats with flaps that are insulated by rabbit fur. Men walk to the rink with their skates hanging from their sticks over their shoulders. We have taken a significant downgrade in ice quality. Zambonis aren't seen on lake rinks, although some die-hards tote down hoses and spray the ice to cut down on nicks and cracks.

But hockey isn't even the most fun sport we play on ice. That would be broomball. It resembles hockey, only it is played with a nerf ball and players wear shoes instead of skates. This is where the amusement factor enters-players running around on ice in an athletic event leads to many more nasty spills than actual goals. The people who have perfected running on ice immediately become Wayne Gretzky-esque as everyone flails and slips behind them in pursuit.

There are also sports that we have invented, which require no athletic ability. My family has a hot tub behind the house, which sits at the top of a hill, at the bottom of which is the lake. Friends and I will get out of the tub when sufficiently steamed, run to the top of the hill, drop to our bellies in the snow, and roll down for as long as we can stand it. The person who makes it further down the hill before succumbing to the threat of hypothermia and sprinting back to the tub wins.

A related game involves getting out of the hot tub, running down the hill, and sprinting as far across the frozen lake as possible before turning back. This one generally doesn't last long-not only do competitors have to deal with the cold, but the jagged ice has been known to scrape up bare feet.

My friends in Kansas usually don't believe me when I recount these games. But Minnesotans subject themselves to all kinds of crazy conditions to prove they can do it. A resort my family visited when I was in middle school had a hole cut into the lake with a foot ladder. It was the dead of winter in Minnesota and the temperature was below zero. The objective, of course, was to get in ones bathing suit and then jump in. Those willing were given a T-shirt that said, "I Took the Plunge." My dad and I could not have been more excited.

Ice fishing is another favorite Minnesota pastime. Fish houses are placed onto the ice with snowmobiles or trucks. Augers are used to cut holes in the ice. Get a couple of friends, some fishing rods and some drinks to keep you warm, and the makings for an interesting day are in place.

Snowmobiling is another favorite. After consecutive winters with lackluster snowfall, my father greeted the onslaught of December snow with the purchase of a Ski-doo snowmobile. My brother often races his friends, who have their own sleds, across the lake. I say these machines move too fast and refuse. Discretion is the better part of valor.

I have probably retired from more winter sports over the years than I currently compete in. I no longer cross country ski (too much work with no excitement), downhill ski (I never completely overcame my fear of flying down the steep hills-I will blame this on my father's story of when he snapped his leg while downhill skiing as a boy during a particularly nasty spill), tackle football in the snow (which was my favorite sport until we got too big in high school and people started to get hurt), snowball fights (because I am no longer 10), and sledding with a Toboggan (the rush of going down the hill was never worth the work of climbing back up it).

Winter break is winding down, and so too are my annual athletic glories on the frozen tundra of Minnesota. I will soon return to Kansas and my stationary life of studying, sleeping and scribbling. But my mind will invariably wander to snow banks, rinks and pucks. And I will long for the cold.

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