The Gravel Pit play ground (or the GPHL vs the ASRHL)

by J Pinsent

When the military constructed Gander during WWII, as a source for material they dug this giant hole, which we called the ‘gravel pit’, just to the east of the Army side. It wasn’t a square hole like you would figure but a hole shaped in the form of the letter “L”. From recollection, it wasn’t very deep, about 10-15 feet. This pit was located a very short distance from the apartment complex where we lived. During the spring and summer this pit collected all the melting snow and rain water becoming a lake of tepid stinking water and mud. By the time autumn rolled around, there was enough dry surfaces exposed to provide space that allowed for a bon fire.

 We started, after school opened in September, collecting used auto tires and any combustible material we could find or steal. Our parents helped by motivating the various garages including Transport Canada to contribute their condemn rubber tires. Eventually a pyre began to emerge. The older boys cut trees and added them to the ever growing mountain. When Guy Fawkes night arrived  there was this massive pile of tires, dried out trees, old wooden crates and wooden barrels, rising high on the floor of the dry part of the gavel pit.

 I don’t know who lit the thing, one of the older guys no doubt, but supper would just be about over when the word would get out. The bon fire was going. We would jump from the table and head for the gravel pit. All curfews were cancelled for this event. As you were going by Jim Noel’s place you could feel the heat. It was almost like daylight, the fire was so bright. People came from all over Gander to watch our fire. The Army side pride was at stake. Comments saying that the fire this year was better than last year, encouraged us to get ready for next year, as soon as next summer ended.

 The next morning we would go down to the pit. You could still fell the heat rising from the area and when you stirred the ashes the coals would glow and burst into flame if you fanned them.  This of course would prompt us to start a smaller fire from any lying about debris.

 With winter approaching, everyone anticipated the cold weather with great delight. With the remaining water left in the pit, the depth was only a foot or more, a lot of frost wasn’t necessary to make the gravel pit into an Olympic size skating/hockey rink, with just a scattered rock or so sticking up like pylons. Just a few obstacles to challenge our skating and stick handling abilities. They also acted as defensemen when the opposing team was on the attack. The gravel pit would be transformed into a perfect roofless skating bowl. At least we thought so.

 The hockey sticks and skates would come out and everyone headed for the pit Saturday morning. Teams would be chosen by two selected captains that picked ‘sides’. The bigger guys would be selected first and descended down in order of age, size and ability. Imagine 8 year olds playing with 14 year olds.  We could only play when the older guys were short of players. Most of the time we were assigned to the minors, ‘the Army side road hockey league’, when the numbers became too large. There we played with kids our own age and size.

 The streets on the Army side were not paved as opposed to the other roads in the rest of the town but consisted of gravel. The streets in the winter became compacted snow, which more than often turned into ice. The streets in Gander were never salted. There were four heating plants that burnt coal to provide steam heat for apartments and public buildings on the Canadian, RAF & American side. When the streets became too slippery, they were “salted” with cinder ash from the heating plant residue. Between the “salting” periods of the streets, the surfaces were completely ice covered. I can remember putting on my skates and skating up and down the street in front of where we lived, just as if it were a skating rink. A little bumpy but adequate.  If we were out in the evening, when it was dark, you could see the sparks flying from our steel skate blades as they stuck the occasional cinder or stone embedded in the compacted ice.

 The streets were not busy, not everyone had a car, so playing on the street was accepted by everyone. After the gravel pit it was our winter play ground. Every hundred feet or so was a street light. We could play hockey at night till curfew time (if you had your home work done). After curfew time, it was bed time.

 Not all of us had hockey sticks. Some of the dads made sticks for us, especially goalie sticks. The puck was a puck. Not a ball but a regulation, hard, black rubber puck. In a pinch, we would saw an end from a birch stick to the same approximate dimensions of a puck. Some of us had shin pads but didn’t wear them much. Couldn’t waste valuable time putting on hockey equipment. It was, home from school, in through the door, “hi mom, going playing hockey”, drop your book bag, grab your hockey stick and “GONE”.

 The goalie was normally the odd guy out. Some of the guys developed a liking for the position and made their own pads out of brin bags stuffed with catalogues (after Christmas) and straw, kept in place with leather straps or rope. Cec Lush was one of our goalies who later became a key player for the Gander team in the senior hockey league. The goal posts were two clumps of compacted snow placed the width of the longest hockey stick in the group. During the game, a time out would be called to re-measure the goal post if one of the goalies were suspected of moving them a little closer. If your goalie didn’t have pads, no raising the puck. The slap shot wasn’t invented yet. No body checking, but bumping was allowed.

 One particular game, I was involved in an incident that became pretty intense. I got entangled with another lad my own age, while fighting for the puck. Someone struck the other in the shins with their stick (no pads). The other retaliated. Then a re-retaliation. Then a strike to the wrist area (no hockey gloves). Another retaliation. Finally, enough is enough. I clunk the guy on the head with my hockey stick. He was wearing one of those leather caps with the earflaps. Well, the blow was hard enough for him to turn tail and run home crying, geeze I felt good. I won. So back to the game at hand, also a plus for us, the other team was now down a man.

 Not too long later we broke the game off because of supper. My mother met me at the door, wanting to know what I had done to my friend. “What are you talking about mom” I said, as innocently as I could muster. Then she starts to tell me what my friend’s mother told her. At that time, my grandfather walks in through the door and says, very proudly, “I see you sent young Scott home crying this afternoon”. My mother goes ballistic on hearing my grandfather’s comments. She tells him how I hit him on the head with my hockey stick. He starts to retract by telling me that I should have dropped my stick and pounded him out like a man. My mother is more infuriated.  “What nonsense. Telling a ten year old boy how to fight”, she scolded him.

 My mother immediately proclaimed herself as President of the ASRHL(Army Side Road Hockey League) and suspended me for remainder of the season. Oh well, there were only a few more weeks left anyway. The cinders would soon be poking up through the ice and the gravel pit was beginning to melt,  Cricket & Baseball would be starting when things dried up.

 Like my grandfather, Don Cherry would have been very disappointed in me, for not dropping my stick. I continued to play organized hockey till after high school and I never had another fight.  But I knew how to get even.

 But we eventually grew older and bigger. We rose up through the evolution chain, becoming the dominating gravel pit hockey players in the GPHL (Gravel Pit Hockey League) and when it got dark in the evenings, played on the streets under the lights.

 The gravel pit never lost it’s attraction for being a useful place. Up until the early 90’s it was used as a demolition derby site for the annual Gander Day event.

 Good places last a long time.



Morley & I