A 'Backward' Hockey Player Soars Above the Crowd

When you ask an ice-hockey goalie why he plays that perilous position, the stock answer is: ''I can't skate.''

If I may borrow a few moments, I'd like to tell about Don Coffin, who was contemporary with us and could only skate backward. By ''us'' I mean my classmates at Freeport High School, graduated in 1926, and another dozen above and below us who made no more than three dozen altogether. And I'm thinking of those lovely days when winter came early and we had beautiful skating by Thanksgiving. Not just a skimming of ice about the edges but solid black ice that didn't creak when three dozen youngsters romped on it.

We'd gather at one of the several ponds available after supper, skate until 9 or 10 p.m., and walk home on crinkly feet that get that way when you skate until 9 or 10 p.m. Our best place was Mallet's Pond, maybe a mile from the village center, and wholly the private property of Mr. Edmund B. Mallet, acknowledged to be the town's benefactor and philanthropist. It was a ''made'' pond, excavated by laborers with shovels, and part of the estate grooming for the nearby mansion of Mr. Mallet. He was no longer about, but the Mallets still lived in the big house and made no objection to having a crowd on their scenery.

Mr. Mallet had inherited a considerable estate, which he proceeded to disperse and disburse in 10 or 15 minutes on projects and enterprises he felt would benefit the community. He opened a granite quarry, built factories, provided housing, and I gather became impoverished well before my time.

His pond, perhaps an acre in size, was supplied by a natural spring thatbubbled at just about the center. This was adequate to keep the pond full of water, and a small overflow trickled over a dam and flowed downhill. The bubbling water in the spring, coming from deep in the ground, wouldn't freeze until it was cooled by mixing in the pond, so no matter how cold it was, a ''springhole'' persisted. As we skated, we were obliged to always keep in mind the open water of that springhole. I never heard that anybody skated into the hole, but it was at least five feet in diameter and was a constant and unpleasant hazard.

We just skated around it and kept away. Except Don Coffin. Don was the son of Billy the barber, whose name has appeared here off and on as our local authority on baseball. Ask Billy how many times Rogers Hornsby struck out against left-handed pitching in July of 1908, and without missing a clip of his scissors, he'd tell you. I believe Don later had his father's shop, but he wasn't himself a baseball buff. As a boy he loved to skate, was always with the crowd on one of our ponds, but couldn't skate forward. Only backward.

In the happy days of which I relate, the shoe-skate was yet to be common. The screw-on skate had given way to the clamp skate, which had two versions. One fastened to a shoe by a lever that locked into position. The other had clamps that needed a winding key, and every boy wore his key on a rawhide string around his neck. Joy was unbounded when a young lady allowed him to ''take up'' her clamps so her skates wouldn't pop off if she tried a twirl. That was also a dandy way to freeze a few fingers on a moonlit zero- degrees night.

Don Coffin never explained his directional deficiency. He would attach his skates at whichever pond we were at that evening, step forward to be on the ice surface, give a push, and be off backward to spend the next couple of hours going around and around. At Mallet's Pond, he didn't skate around the springhole. He would jump over it, something we who skated forward never tried. And in those days, before fancy skating became big stuff, it was quite something to see Don push off, rise in the air, and pass over the cold, dark hole to gain the opposite ice in a graceful glide as yet unduplicated by an Olympic champ.

A lady otherwise congenial tried to tell me that hockey players can't do fancy skating because they wear a different kind of skate. This seemed to be a specious kind of argument, like the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, and my position was merely that I like to go to the Forum, and I had seen Richard the Rocket do on one ear what figure skaters have never tried. I courteously neglected to explain that he would usually have Gordie Howe or Phil Esposito around his neck. We never debated to the point that I mentioned Don Coffin, who did try out once for the Boston Bruins. As goalie.

Although Mallet's Pond was our best place to skate, we did not favor it because Mr. Mallet had requested no fires. All our other places, except Weston's ice pond, would soon have wood ashes and cinders in a circle, and we'd scrounge around for some kind of wood to burn. The ice pond was off limits anyway, because any litter on the ice hindered a clean harvest, and the town's summer refrigeration came from Weston's pond and not from an electric light socket.

When at last I came to have some shoe-skates, they ruined me. I was delighted to have them, and they were great. I wore my Lion Brand leather boots to the pond, carrying my new shoe-skates under my arm, and changed when I arrived to skate. When it was time to go home, I found my boots frozen into an impossible shape, and I couldn't get them on. I walked the mile-and-more home in my shoe-skates, and then for a week couldn't walk at all. My Lion Brands never regained their shape.

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