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Detroit, MI To those who love outdoor hockey, and have seen the impact it has on young players experiencing it for the first time, Clark Park is a special place. To its surrounding community, it is a vital asset. Situated in Detroit's Mexicantown, within view of the Ambassador Bridge, Clark Park's outdoor rink draws teams of almost age and level, from those playing the first organized hockey to those who've long-retired, and from places as far away as Arizona, and from across the border in Canada.
The Capital City Capitals (a high school co-op team of DeWitt, St. Johns, Lansing Catholic, Mason & Ionia) , under third-year coach Travis Van Tighem, have been handed a memorable opportunity to take their game outdoors to Clark Park on Jan. 4 against Notre Dame Prep. It is a first for many on Van Tighem's roster.
"I wanted to try to give them an experience that means more than just the game. I'd like them to feel like it meant something memorable," he explained. "It could be something that will stay with them the rest of their lives. Maybe to say it was 'cold as all get-out' but to feel that kind of excitement."
Van Tighem himself has coached in outdoor games twice - both at the youth level - once in Lake Forest, Illinois and the other at Clark Park against a Canadian youth program.
Notre Dame Prep has been circled as the Capitals' ideal opponent for an outdoor contest for some time.
"(Our programs) both had a comparable idea to give our players this great experience," he explained. "The scheduling can be tricky, and bad weather can be an issue. We wanted Notre Dame Prep and we finally got a date."
The two teams had a previous meeting at a notable neutral-site venue - Yost arena in Ann Arbor two years ago. But the Clark Park event is significant to Van Tighem's program itself. "High school hockey in this area has gotten a bit of a bad rap because we're not quite at the same level, but we're starting to prove we can build a great program," he said. Hockey has been played at Clark Park as far back as 1947, according to Ziggy Gonzales, vice president of the Clark Park Coalition. In that time, rain, flooding and cold weather created a natural surface for skating. In 1976, a new rink was established, with Detroit mayor Coleman Young cutting the grand-opening ribbon, Gonzales recalled.
"We were one of four rinks, and the other three are closed now," he said.
A Special Rink
Clark Park's unique status in the city of Detroit has meant a lot to many well-known Detroiters, especially in the hockey community. Redwings alumni, including Mickey Redman and Larry Murphy, have played in benefit games there. There are fundraiser games between the police and fire departments as well. U-M Dearborn has hosted contests with other club programs at the Park.
Anthony Benavides is the executive director of the Coalition, and explained that its mission is tied to the rink’s vital place in the surrounding community. “(Our mission) is to provide sports and education for youth in neighborhood,” he said.
“Our focus is in developing in-house teams, especially from the local community. We also have high school teams play here. For youth program (participation) we go through USA Hockey. “ For Gonzales, there are enough moments in his decades-long romance with the rink to fill a book. One such occasion involved two icons of Detroit hockey.
"There was a game where Ted Lindsay was there, and bobbleheads of himself were being sold," he recalled.
"He insisted that a bunch of them should be handed out to the kids. But (Daren) McCarty felt that they ... needed to look a little bit rougher, so he took a sharpy and drew scars on them." With or without a celebrity presence, Gonzales, 88 - who has skated in Clark Park for more than 80 years - has long-recognized the joy that the outdoor game provides.
"Without hockey, I don't know what else I'd do. I love nothing more than to go help kids out there, and play hockey. There's something about it that makes you feel like a kid, even people my age."