My best friend nearly lost an eye here. I was once given a two-handed slash to my shin that was so hard I had a welt the size of a golf ball for months. The goals scored, tantrums thrown, and screaming matches exchanged here were enumerable. I don’t think anyone actually knows who Bill Ward is or why a hockey rink in Middletown, New Jersey was named after him, but if there is any place on this earth that qualified as a second home for me between 2012 and 2015 it would be there. This was when a group of friends, fellow coaches, and former players created our own little street hockey league. We were insane enough that we even kept stats which certainly put things over the top more often than not.
If the rink was not built during the Reagan Administration, it would have fooled me. The “benches” resembled massive baseball dugouts and the actual dashers themselves were wood instead of hard plastic. This caused pucks to ricochet and take odd caroms, and for splinters to explode outward if you shot the puck hard enough in the right spot. The playing surface was probably also original. It had cracks that resembled fault lines running through California. If playing on foot, they were an annoyance. If on roller blades, you could easily trip and fall to your death.
The area was never maintained and leaves were never raked. There were tree branches and garbage everywhere. Battling for a loose puck in the corners produced a veritable storm of leaves, dust, dirt, broken beer bottles, heroin needles, and Game cigar wrappers, among other things. Approach those leaves and start firing away without finding the puck first and you very well may have sent a soda can flying towards the goalie.
This place was a piece of shit. We openly and wholeheartedly referred to it as such. Sometimes a net would go missing. They were bulky and heavy, meaning they couldn’t go far. It would usually be found in the woods or tossed near the parking lot for reasons unknown. Sometimes both nets would be there but the actual netting was cut out. Reason #653 why we can’t have nice things. But we loved it anyway. This was our second home. As soon as we got out of school or work, we were there. Sometimes it was just to shoot around. Other times we had enough for a half-rink game that ranged from 2-on-2 to 5-on-5 depending on how many victims wanted to play that particular day. It was either an obsession or automatic response. I remember getting out from teaching at 3:30 PM with a night class to teach at 6:00 and racing home to get my gear just so I could play for maybe an hour before heading back home to shower and get ready.
We played in all temperatures. One day, in winter, our water and Gatorade bottles froze solid mid-game. During the summer, the heat combined with the blacktop surface converted the rink into an oven that roasted us from the inside out. Though it was never tried, I am pretty sure you could cook bacon and eggs at the center face-off circle if the angle of the sun was right.
Interesting people were guaranteed to always be found. On a given day, you could come across kindhearted souls wanting to play around with anyone with a heart beat or a small group of assholes hogging the whole rink even when a larger group was waiting patiently for a chance to share. Strangers became friends. Enemies became cohorts. Some enemies became worse enemies. Perhaps you may even witness a drug deal—such close proximity to the Henry Hudson Trail made this a haven for shady happenings which would occur right in front of us by less-concerned persons. In the end, that’s probably what shut the place down. If you played long enough, you could expect at least one or two visits from a police car, just scanning the area and looking around.
This truly was a rink shared by all. You had children first learning how to skate sharing space with adults of AARP age just trying to get some shots in before their next beer league outing. One evening, in a maddening explosion of stupidity, a group of what seemed like 40 well-built individuals showed up to play football on the half of the rink we weren’t using. We were kind enough to restrict ourselves to one half, while they saw it fit to use our blue line as their end zone. I don’t know how there wasn’t a fight or serious injury that night.
One of my later memories that I regard with fondness is when we were kicked out by an army of women in a roller derby league. We were in the middle of playing when they started moving our stuff and barking orders. I said something like, “Excuse me, we were here first”, before I was immediately shut down and descended upon by what seemed like every short-haired female in Monmouth County with their divine ruler jumping down my throat screaming, “Yeah well we have a fuckin’ town permit and we will call the cops if you don’t get the fuck out right now.” Most interactions at the rink went as pleasantly.
The bottom line is, our hockey league or group or whatever you want to call it was more than friends playing around. It was like a fraternity. We played constantly and when we couldn’t play, we were hanging out somewhere else. We learned to better ourselves both skill-wise and as men. It was a shame seeing the rink deteriorate right before our very eyes. It was in early 2016, I believe, that the rink was fenced off never to open. Our group moved to another rink nearby as a result. It is serviceable but lacks the character. Now, as of a few days ago, it has been demolished for good. How many other groups like ours poured energy into that place? How many shots taken, saves made, goals scored, and drops of blood oozed into that rink? Too many to count.
Now, we are left with only our memories. Those day games with the sun shining directly into the goalie’s eyes, or the night games when the lights cast a warm glow across the surface. From lungs hurting from rampaging through the freezing winter air to sweating and panting on a hot summer night, we certainly experienced all this tiny place had to offer.