Black Ice brings blues over weather 

  • The 10th annual Black Ice Pond Hockey Championships kicked off on Friday, January 24, 2020 at White Park in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER


Monitor staff
Published: 1/30/2020 9:47:49 AM

Boot hockey doesn’t cut it in this town.

Certainly not on Chris Brown’s watch. The face of the Black Ice Pond Hockey Tournament, who created this event 10 years ago, couldn’t bring himself to put hundreds of skates on ice last weekend and replace them with boots.

So he didn’t. He canceled the final two days of the four-day event because of rain and warmth and slush, which turned the surface at White Park pond into, as Brown put it, “snow cones.”

“We could get by for a few hours playing in boots, but we thought it was in the best interest of everybody to cancel it,” Brown said Wednesday by phone. “Boot hockey is not what they signed up for.”

Not here. Let some other town switch to boots if the weather doesn’t cooperate. This is Concord, a hockey town, and the Black Ice Tournament has served as a reminder and a promoter of this fact for a decade.

The tents that double as locker rooms at the park have been busting with history each winter. Weather permitting, of course.

If you’ve stopped by and were old enough to remember some of the glory years here, you surely ran into a who’s who of hockey, the players who continue to keep the sport closely affiliated with the city. Where the sport was born, on Nov. 17, 1883, at St. Paul’s School.

From then to now, history that is rich, rich, rich. The all-time Black Ice roster always includes big names from the sport’s past. Names of players who starred in high school and college, and who played pro, coming back home. Or perhaps they never left.

I saw Tara Mounsey at the event a few years ago. She won gold and silver at the Winter Olympics in 1998 and 2002. Some considered her to be the best women’s hockey player in the country.

I’ve seen former goalie Bruce Gillies at the event. He was a monster at Bishop Brady High School and then the University of New Hampshire before he faced The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, in a preseason NHL camp.

I saw the Blossoms, our version of the Hanson Brothers from the movie Slapshot. Lee Blossom played at Boston College and was named the Most Valuable Player in the prestigious Beanpot Tournament in the 1980s.

I saw Dunc Walsh, Concord High’s hockey coach, and other familiar names and nicknames, like Farrelly and Tilly and Commy.

These are the players who called Everett Arena home. That’s the arena named for former Concord resident Douglas Everett, who won a silver medal for the United States at the 1932 Winter Games.

The arena hosted semi-pro teams named the Concord Eastern Olympics and the Budmen, who packed Everett on Friday and Saturday nights, especially when hated Berlin came to town.

And a few years ago, the New York Times came here and published a hockey story that read, “No sport has captured the city’s imagination quite like hockey.”

That’s why boots were unacceptable, in an event that forced Brown and his dozens of volunteers to ride a roller-coaster for what seemed like forever.

It was unseasonably warm the weekend before the tournament. Then, a snowstorm.

“There was hesitation by the city, which wondered if it could get the pond back to safety, let alone skate there,” Brown said. It was warm, and then we said, ‘Oh my God, how long will it take to get the snow off?’ ”

Too long. Snow on top of slushy ice made for bad skating, so Brown postponed the tournament, giving seven days’ notice. He followed the backup plan, to move the event to this weekend. Then, reality hit him in the face.

Out-of-towners, who had planned months ahead of time to participate in the Black Ice, had gotten hotel rooms at good rates, and that was a one-shot deal. Our unique place in the political process made sure of that. The New Hampshire primary is on Feb. 11.

“All of our hotels and sponsors said, ‘Do you realize the primary is here,’ ” Brown told me. “I said, ‘Great, the more the merrier.’ But then they said they couldn’t give us those rates and there would be no rooms anyway.”

By Martin Luther King Day, the pond had recovered nicely, public skating was being held and Brown realized there were “no guarantees we’d have better weather in February, so we said let’s do it.”

The volunteers, who plan this thing a year in advance, went to work, raising the tents, smoothing the ice, spreading the word. The extended forecast was promising. Cold, with a little snow Friday and little more Saturday.

And Day 1, Thursday, was great. Solid ice, clear weather and lots of kids, hundreds of them, competing in a giant youth hockey jamboree.

“A great night,” Brown said. “Seventeen youth teams from the area, an awesome experience, tons of people.”

Then the temperatures rose. Rain fell. Spirits dampened.

Desperate to fulfill his commitment and make this work, Brown, mindful that 90 teams were ready to go, turned the event into a boot hockey tournament on Friday, the beginning of adult play.

“The surface had deteriorated, so the only safe use was through boot hockey,” Brown said. “It’s the hockey you played at home when you didn’t have ice.”

It was 35 degrees late Friday night, too warm to support a good ice surface. Slush was everywhere Saturday morning. Brown had seen enough.

“They didn’t come here to play in boots,” he said.

The call to fold the tent came Saturday morning. Brown has seen freaky weather during the Black Ice before. He said he’s had to juggle games, reschedule them or cancel them eight times in the past.

“The last week in January,” Brown said, “is supposed to be the coldest.”

Brown stopped short of an apology to those who had traveled from out of state. Instead, he stressed his utter disappointment in a letter he wrote to the Monitor and on the phone. Hockey people know the score when it comes to playing outside.

“People should understand,” Brown said. “I’m so disappointed to spend this much time with the volunteers, with 12 months of work and two weeks of set up. But because of Mother Nature, the plug had to be pulled, and people feel our pain.”

Soon, planning will start for next year. Brown said the Black Ice is held on a year-to-year basis, so there are no guarantees he can maintain the interest and financing needed to bring it back for an 11th time.

There are also no guarantees that the last weekend in January 2021 will be cold and clear. But Brown knows the significance of the Black Ice. He knows the sport’s background and value around here.

“We think we understand how this tourney has impacted the city,” Brown said. “We created this winter festival and you see the lure of it and you get excited over what it has done.

“I’m disappointed we could not do it,” Brown continued, “but I try to stay positive through the whole thing, and we try to keep all the volunteers feeling positive as well.”

They were positive this time. That those boots were made for walking.

Not skating.

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