Denny Crotty was only 5 years old when he saw the Blackhawks professional hockey team holding practice in the village park on Harrison Street.
Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita didn’t show up, but Chico Maki, Bill White and Keith Magnuson did, along with lesser-known teammates, allowing all the kids in town to see their sports idols up close.
“The outside of the rink,” recalled Crotty, “was filled with people. They even let a few teenagers come on the ice and skate with them.”
“Those were the days before global warming,” explained Dave Novak who became the park’s director years after the Blackhawks skated in the park, “when it would snow at the beginning of December. That’s in contrast to 2021 when there was no snow at all during that month.”
Crotty and Novak explained that the rink on which the Blackhawks skated was created over the tennis courts. Tubing for refrigerant was installed either under or on top of the courts — neither one could remember — along with dasher boards along the sides and goals. When the temperature dipped below freezing the park staff would hook a hose up to a fire hydrant across the street and flood the rink. It was the first of its kind in the area.
What is now the building used for the park’s day camp was built as a warming facility where skates were rented, hot chocolate was sold at a concession stand, and the Zamboni was parked. Novak explained that the rink did not last for many years, because it was expensive to run and revenue from patrons and skate parties did not come in as expected.
Gunzo’s hockey store, which was located at that time where the U-Haul store is now, seems to have had something to do with the Blackhawks’ appearance. Crotty remembers how many of Blackhawks would have their skates sharpened there and he and his buddies would run over and get autographs.
For many years before and after the ill-fated hockey rink, the park would create a much larger skating rink on what is now the soccer field. Novak, who started working at the park in 1974, explained the process.
“After the first good snowfall, we would plow the field, building up banks around its perimeter. We would then spray the banks with water and let them freeze before hooking a hose up to another fire hydrant on Harrison and flooding the field.” Sometimes, he recalled, the bank would not hold and, like a dyke breaking, the water flowed out toward the tennis courts, making the skating area even larger.
Crotty, who lived on Beloit just a few doors from the park entrance, said he and his buddies would go to the park district on winter Saturdays at 8 a.m. and not get home till 9 that night. The laces on his skates would be so frozen that he would have to sit in the hallway at home for up to half an hour and let the laces thaw out enough to take his skates off.
“If it had snowed the night before,” he said, “we’d put three or four garbage cans side by side and use them like a snowplow to clear off the rink.” He and his friends would do a poor man’s version of barrel jumping with those same garbage cans, lining them up on the ice.
If Crotty and his buddies got tired of skating, they would move over to the toboggan slide which was located near the northeast corner of the park. The hill was about 15 feet high and the structure on top added another two stories.
“We used to take buckets of water,” said Crotty, “from our houses, pour them down the toboggan slide and we’d skate down after it froze. Sometimes we would pour it on kids as they were going down. We’d bring our wooden slides with steel runners, pile five guys on top of each other and see how far we could go.”
Crotty, who started working at the park’s Buildings and Groups Department in 1995, said that his crew would put the structure up at the beginning of December and take it down in the spring.
And if they got tired of going down the toboggan slide, Crotty and his gang would go skitching. Novak explained, “Skitching is when you grab hold of the back bumper of a vehicle and let it pull you along. Forty years ago they did not plow the snow all the way down to the pavement and they did not use a lot of salt, so you could slide along behind the vehicle.”
“That would work fine,” Crotty added, “until you hit a manhole cover or a dry spot! Back in those days we had milk trucks which would stop frequently at houses along the street. Those frequent stops made them good for skitching. We would hide in the bushes and when the truck slowed down we’d run out and grab onto the bumper.”
“It was totally dangerous,” Novak admitted with a laugh, “but if the driver knew you, he’d sometimes drive a little more slowly.”
Barone’s Drug Store used to be on Harrison Street right across from the park. “It had an old-time soda fountain,” Crotty remembered. “We’d go in there with our skates on to get hot chocolate, and the pharmacist, Ted Angelo, would yell at us not to come in with our skates on. We replied that we would tip-toe. We destroyed his floor.”
Both Crotty and Novak grew up and started working as adults at the very park where they had so much fun. Now they had to create and maintain the ice rinks on which they skated as kids.
“In the early ’70s,” Novak said, “we would wait for a good snowfall to plow what is now the soccer field. We’d build up banks of snow and spray them with water so it would freeze into ice. Then we’d tap off a fire hydrant on Harrison and flood the field. Sometimes we’d start at 8 p.m. and be here till 2 or 3 in the morning.”