Every winter for many years, a patch of Grant Park has undergone a nightly transformation.
After the Daley Bicentennial Plaza ice rink closed at 9 p.m., it turned into something that resembled a frozen pond in Canada.
Hockey lovers from across the city — college students, middle-age fathers, women — converged on the rink to play pickup hockey for hours, sometimes until early in the morning. .
There were no nets — just a pair of shoes at each end of the ice. No referees. No organized teams or leagues.
The outdoor hockey party went on, participants said, for some 25 years. But now, it is apparently over.
As part of a redesign of Daley Bicentennial Plaza — Daley Bi for short — the Chicago Park District will replace the rectangular ice rink with a skating ribbon that will wind through landscape and trees. Construction is to begin in the fall, with completion set for 2015.
Last weekend, which ended the Park District skating season citywide, was presumably the last for after-hours hockey at Daley Bi.
"It's just this sacred, magical thing in the middle of this city, and it's going to be destroyed," said Megan Bearder, a freelance photographer from the Logan Square neighborhood and an avid player at the rink who is trying to gather support for keeping a rink suitable for hockey at the park.
While magic for many, the games were also illegal after the surrounding park closed at 11 p.m.
"They're not technically supposed to be out there past 11," said Park District spokeswoman Zvezdana Kubat. "They're out there, I hate to say it, but illegally."
Participants accordingly have long kept quiet about the games outside the sport's circles. One skater dubbed it "Fight Club": like in the movie, the first rule is no one talks about it.
The silence was effective. Kubat said the Park District was unaware people were playing hockey at the rink through the night.
"Nobody seems to know they're out there," she said. "It's tucked away; people probably don't see them and neither does the security (detail)."
On Friday, one of the final gatherings, teams were chosen in traditional pond hockey fashion: Everyone threw their sticks on the ice and the pile was divided randomly in half.
Then the night air in the secluded section of Grant Park was filled with the scraping and hissing of skate blades. Wearing sweatshirts and caps, skaters zipped the puck across the ice as they worked it toward the net, or at any rate the shoes.
No one kept score.
The city skyline glittered to the west. High-rises loomed and blinked to the north on Randolph Street. Traffic from Lake Shore Drive and Columbus Drive was a distant hum.
At 11 p.m., the lights above the rink were turned off, signaling the park's closing. Under the faint light coming from lampposts and surrounding high-rises, the skaters played on.
The puck shot off the ice and onto the sidewalk a few times. One of the players leaned out, hooked his stick around it and reeled it in. When a puck escaped onto the grass, skaters fetched it by waddling off the rink on their knees.
During breaks off the ice, players sang praises destined to serve as the rink's eulogy.
"It's just so accepting and welcoming," said Bearder.
She has started an organization, the Chicago Outdoor Sports Association, for those who want Daley-Bi's new rink to remain a hockey-friendly rectangle, and was passing around a petition.
"This is my stress release," said Lisa Labovitch, librarian and archivist at the Union League Club of Chicago. "It almost has a little small-town feel to it even though it's in the middle of the city."
It was Labovitch who called the late night gathering the "Fight Club." Knowing it was coming to an end, she blogged about it:
Imagine showing up on a crisp winter night: The rink is nearly deserted as the last figure skaters put their gear away and the Zamboni driver finishes up the last laps resurfacing the ice. As you put on your skates you are gradually joined by others with hockey gear ... They just show up, kind of like the Field of Dreams.
Then it's 4-on-4 hockey under the stars, skyscrapers, and sometimes even snow....
Bearder, too, found the scene magical. "I've been here sometimes when people will just lay down on the ice and take it in," Bearder said. "I've done it myself. I've counted 25 stars."
And then there were the homespun hockey charms.
"You're just playing regular pond hockey," said Ken Kunz, a delivery company independent contractor from the Northwest Side. "There's no rules or anything like that. You don't have to pay any money. And it's outside. There's just something about playing outside and working up a sweat when it's zero outside. It's terrific."
"I've been coming here for 25 years," Kunz said. "Everybody I've ever played hockey with is out here at one time or another."
He said he has played with people from Kazakhstan, Russia and Sweden. Students from the Moody Bible Institute were frequent visitors. He often played alongside his son, Tony, who on Friday celebrated his 24th birthday with hockey.
Tony Kunz and his friends sometimes play until 4 or 5 a.m., taking the Red Line home or waiting for the Brown Line to start running again.
"Years ago, when the police cars passed, we had to throw down our sticks and stop playing," said Jagoda Stark, who lives in a nearby condo and plays hockey with her husband and 10-year-old son.
But Kunz said he has largely played undisturbed. "I've only gotten one ticket," he said. Players have no wish to show disrespect to police, he said. If officers ask them to wind games down, they usually do.
Labovitch suspects that some police officers share the players' affection for the scene.
"Often you'd have police cars that would just sit and watch us. You'd think, 'Oh, they're going to crack down on us,' but they'd just watch."
Gia Biagi, director of strategy and policy at the Park District, said hockey players never objected to the new design for the park's ice rink, despite having plenty of opportunities.
"We've been in the community process for probably five years now on this project," she said. "We've had meetings all over the city. In some cases we've had hundreds of people attend."
The district conducted a survey that had more than 1,500 respondents, held public meetings and workshops and displayed the plans in the Chicago Pedway in view of 150,000 passersby a day, she said.
What it heard from the public, she said, is that "people like the rink. They like the experience of skating with the skyline in the background. So ... we are putting back an ice rink, but rethinking it."
The skating ribbon will wind through undulating hills and evergreen trees, she said. "This was a very unique opportunity to bring something to Chicago that doesn't exist here," she said.
As for hockey, "We have lots of places to play hockey throughout the city, (from) Chicago Park District rinks to Johnny's IceHouse," she said. "And I say that as a former hockey player, from the age of 3 on up."
Bicentennial Plaza regulars said they didn't know about the public meetings. But Kunz was philosophical.
"Even if we did, the fact of the matter is, we're all out there after the park is closed," he said. "I don't see how you can go to a meeting and say, 'Keep the rink open so we can illegally play hockey at night.'"
Labovitch ended her blog post with her hope for the future:
Perhaps, just maybe, on that meandering ribbon rink that they want to build, there will be a straight spot just long enough and just wide enough that people can filter down from Randolph on a cool clear night and play until they can play no more (or until the tow truck arrives).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun