Like most hockey stories, it starts with a game of shinny – drop-in, as it’s known at Clark Park. There are about 15 of us at the rink on this occasion, Monday night of President’s Day weekend, and we can see our breath and only barely feel our toes. We skate for a couple hours, one goalie switching between both nets, and we don’t keep score. Better yet, we lose track. There are stretch passes and odd-man rushes and shots from all over. There is very little back-checking. The air is still tonight, but flatly cold, and it fills our lungs with a chill. It reddens our cheeks and makes our noses run. Icicles of snot hang from our face masks. (Well, mine anyway.) The whole world seems to exist right here for the moment, like time might be standing still, like the moon won’t fade until our legs give out.
It’s about 10:00 when we eventually start trickling toward the locker room, and the work week looms. Reality. Imagine that.
I’m sitting at my desk the next day, legs a bit sore, when I get a text from a new friend. He’s listed in my phone as ‘Brent Hockey.’ His real name is Brent Benavides, and his dad, Anthony, is the director of Clark Park. Anthony was born and raised in Southwest Detroit. Clark Park is where he learned to play hockey; it’s very much where he grew up. Now he runs the place, which in the winter means running the rink. When there’s open ice, Anthony sends word to Brent who gathers a group for some drop-in, $10 a head. On this day, though, Brent’s just looking for an extra player.
“What’s up,” he asks. “There’s a tournament this week at Clark Park. Wednesday – Saturday. Would you possibly want to play? There’ll be a few skaters from last night playing in it.”
In Southwest Detroit, Clark Park is a staple. It stretches from I-75 to Vernon between Clark Ave and Scotten, smack dab in the middle of Mexicantown, and includes soccer fields, ballfields and tennis courts. The first sign of ice skaters can be found in a photograph from 1888; they laced them up back then on a pair of kidney-shaped ponds that froze every winter. The city eventually put up a small rink in the early 1940’s, right next to a log cabin whose wood furnace made for a nice warming hut. This is where Anthony Benavides, and so many others, learned to skate.
Ziggy Gonzalez, 87, was one of the first. The son of Mexican immigrants, Ziggy didn’t stumble upon a hockey game until he was 13 years old. His reward for serving as a safety patrol boy at his elementary school was a trip to the Olympia to see the Red Wings plays the Rangers in 1944. “It was love at first sight,” he recalls. “I saw the game and thought, ‘Wow. We gotta play this.’” Three years later he finally had enough money to buy a used pair of skates from the Salvation Army. Then he rounded up a group of his friends, took to the ice at Clark Park and fell in love all over again. He's still in love some 70 years later. "I never got hooked on a sport as deeply as I did with hockey," he says.
Over time, outdoor ice rinks began popping up at rec centers across Detroit. The original one at Clark Park would be knocked down and replaced in 1974. Ziggy still remembers Mayor Coleman Young cutting the ribbon; he must have been a busy man. There were rinks on the east side at Farwell and Heilmann, one on the west side at Butzel, and others off the Lodge at Wigle and off 94 at O’Shea. There were eight of them at the height of it all, and teams from each neighborhood comprising an ethnically diverse rec league – the Hungarians from Delray, the Polish from Claytown, the Maltese from Corktown. Mexicantown had a team of its own. It was Ziggy who started it, of course. “We skated all over the city,” he says.
But Detroit met its inevitable fate. Factories closed and the population shrunk. Tax money dwindled and park budgets dried up. The rinks went mostly unused. One by one, they were bulldozed, wiped off the map like they never existed. Clark Park is the lone survivor and, today, the only regulation-sized outdoor hockey rink in Detroit.
The 61-year-old Benavides is a big reason it’s still around. He’s wearing a CCM ‘Clark Park Hockey’ cap when we first meet. He has a gray mustache, fatherly eyes and the ruddy complexion of a man who has spent much of his life outside. His passion for the park, and in particular its hockey rink, rings gently through his voice when the subject comes up. He chooses his words thoughtfully, but they don’t seem hard for him to find.
I catch the glow of the park the moment I veer off the highway. It’s a gloomy evening, a few degrees above freezing with a steady drizzle, and the lights above the rink beckon in the haze. The parking lot isn’t quite full, but it’s the busiest I’ve seen it, and there’s a white tent set up just outside the brick building that houses a pair of locker rooms. I make my way through for registration. “Will Burchfield,” I tell the young woman behind the table, as she begins flipping through rosters. “I think I was just added today.” We find my name, and my tournament has officially begun. “Wait,” I say. “Do you know who I’m playing for?”
“Clark Park,” she tells me – and I think that’s pretty damn cool.
Our roster is comprised mostly of coaches in the park’s youth hockey program, plus a few alumni of the program and then a couple mercenaries like me. We range in age from our mid-20’s to our late 30’s. We are white, black and Mexican. We’re pitted in the first game of the tournament against the Sparkplugs, the two-time defending champs from Downriver. Our team has some good skaters; these guys are flat-out better. Their best player wears No. 71, rocks a half-shield and sports a goatee a la Dylan Larkin. Their jerseys make them look the Red Wings. A 1-1 game in the first quickly devolves into a 9-2 rout, and the scoreboard does us a favor by not going past single digits. By the third period, No. 71 is making passes between his legs, just for show. I begin to chirp him from the bench, then remember we’re down by seven.
Less than a mile from Clark Park, just a few blocks down Clark Ave, is the headquarters of a company called Ideal Group. It doubles as a community advocate in Southwest Detroit, having been located there since 1995. Over the years, Ideal Group has worked closely with Clark Park in ways big and small, from fundraising and sponsoring events to lending a hand in clean-up projects. The company understands that a neighborhood with no park is hardly a neighborhood at all.
“My goal was just to get a couple people out here and get them excited about the rink. Play some hockey, have some fun and then if we can do something good at the end of the day by helping the kids with a sport I absolutely love…” Venegas pauses. “I want more kids to play hockey, and it’s not an easy sport for kids that don’t have the means to play because it’s so expensive. It’s done a whole lot for my life. For these kids, I wouldn’t want them to not have the opportunity to play hockey.”
And so the Clark Street Classic was born. There were six teams the first year. The tournament ran from Friday to Saturday in some of the harshest weather of the winter: fierce winds, heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures. The players took shelter in the locker rooms between games. The American flag above the building was frozen stiff. When the snow began to pile up, everybody grabbed shovels and cleared the ice. The wind was so severe that one game was effectively decided when the two teams switched ends in overtime. (Ever try skating into a headwind?) The Clark Park team, no stranger to the elements, claimed the championship. And Venegeas’ efforts raised $5,000.
The parking lot is full when I pull in around 8:00 Thursday night. Rock music is playing on the speakers outside the locker rooms, flames are leaping from two standing fire pits nearby and happy people are enjoying each other’s company. There’s a group of players suited up and ready to take the ice, and another group that just came off – it’s impossible to tell who may have lost. There are spectators in the crowd, too, friends of players just here for a good time. Labatt Blue is the beverage of choice. It’s a down-home neighborhood gathering, a winter carnival without all the attractions and props. There is hockey and there is beer, and there are people who enjoy both.
Because there are 12 teams this year – a Clark Street Classic high – Venegas has divided them into three divisions. We’re playing in the Ziggy Gonzalez division. And who walks into the locker room after our game but Ziggy himself, smiling from ear to ear. He’s wearing a Clark Park Hockey sweatshirt beneath a leather jacket, and the eyes behind his glasses twinkle with stories. He still skates now and then; hockey has never let go of his heart. Ziggy is glowing tonight because the park is buzzing, the way it so often was when he was younger, and because there are faces here he's never seen. I think he knows he'll see them again. I’m one of the first to shake his hand, and he tells me the pleasure is his. He’s wrong.
When Detroit’s outdoor rinks were being torn down, the parks around them were being closed, too. Budget cuts left the city with no choice. But when it came to Clark Park, which had deteriorated into a scene of crime and was on the verge of being shut down in the early ’90s, a group of advocates in Southwest Detroit pushed back. They formed the Clark Park Coalition, and convinced the city the park could be saved. Anthony Benavides was a founding member. So was Deb Sumner, who, in Ziggy’s mind, deserves the bulk of the credit for the coalition’s success.
“When everyone else was afraid of the city, she went and confronted them. And they backed off. She said, ‘You’re not going to close this park down. What are you going to do, build a wall around it?’ Walls weren’t in vogue in those days like they are now with Trump,” Ziggy cracks. “She said, ‘Go ahead. Close this rink. Let’s see how you’re going to do it.’”
Truth be told, the rink was in terrible shape. The boards were collapsing, where they weren’t missing sections. The compressors were down. The condensers were, too. Benavides knew something had to be done quickly, so he secured some donations, including $15,000 from former Tigers pitcher Hank Aguirre, who owned a manufacturing business in Southwest Detroit, and gathered a group of volunteers to start piecing the rink back together. The volunteers repaired the boards by hand, which back then were made of wood. Then the city hopped onboard and helped replace the expensive machinery. “That gave us a shot in the arm,” says Benavides. The rink was operational again by the mid ‘90s.
About 10 years later, it was in need of more help. Enter Dewey Henry, a Wayne County official who had spent much of his childhood at Clark Park. “Dewey came on the scene and said, ‘We’re going to rebuild this rink from scratch,’” says Benavides. When the park held a non-profit event for which Henry and then-Wayne County executive Ed McNamara were present, Henry made a poignant pitch to the man in charge. He pointed across the street to his old house. He pointed in the same direction to his old school. He pointed to the tree where he kissed a girl for the first time. (He probably had several trees to choose from.) “This was my park,” he told McNamara.
“Dewey put Ed on the spot,” recalls Benavides. He said, ‘Hey, Ed’ – Big Shot Ed – ‘what are you going to do about Clark Park? We need to make an investment. And Ed said, ‘What do you think we need? How much?’”
One of the first teammates I find is a fellow mercenary named Eric. He tells me he’s got beer in his bag, and I act responsible and tell him we’ll crack a few after. “After?” he asks, as if I’m speaking a foreign language. “You’re right,” I tell him. “We’ll crack a few right now.” Eric and I find a place to stand along the boards behind the net, and start chatting with a couple guys next to us from another team. One of them asks how we’ve fared so far. I shake my head and tell him not so well – but hey, we had a tough draw playing the three-time defending champs in the first game.
If there’s a defining rivalry of the Clark Street Classic, it’s the Sparkplugs vs. H.H. Barnum. They've squared off in the finals three years in a row, with each game being decided in overtime. Barnum, one of the Clark Street Classic’s original six, is here to level the score. But these guys have other things on their minds, too, like the bars and casinos later that night and the fact that it’s National Margarita Day and here we are in the middle of Mexicantown. They celebrated the occasion earlier, which isn't to say they won't do so again.
We can’t catch a break against the Turbos. We lose 5-1, bringing our record to 0-2-1 in round robin play and setting up a quarterfinal matchup on Saturday with a juggernaut from the Detroit Athletic Club. They’re playing against Barnum in Friday’s nightcap, so I stick around for a bit to see what we’re in for. I quickly realize we’re in for a lot. But what is Clark Park if not resilient? The people here have defied the odds before.
It’s close to 1:00 in the morning as I start walking toward my car, and there’s still a hockey game being played in Southwest Detroit, five a side with full benches, beneath the lights and the moon and the nearby gleam of the Ambassador Bridge. Time seems to pause again. Things are quiet but for skates slashing the ice, sticks smacking the puck back and forth and the occasional whistle of a referee, which halts this old record, just for a moment, until a new group of players spills over the boards and it continues to spin.
Rene Montemayor, for his part, is done. He still loves the game, but his knees can’t take it anymore. These days he’s content to watch. He was 13 when he learned to skate at Clark Park, and he busted his lip in half the first day. (“Anthony got me a Band-Aid,” he chuckles. “It needed more than that.) He spent so much time here over the next year that he wanted to know how he could help out. Within time he was driving the Zamboni. His school work permit allowed him to get paid.
Merlos, 29, moved to Southwest Detroit a few years back and wound up neighbors with Benavides. He played some men’s league hockey in the area, but had no idea there was an outdoor rink basically around the corner from his house. When he was carrying his equipment bag inside one night, Benavides saw him and said, “You’re a coach now. See you Tuesday.” Merlos has been there just about every Tuesday since. He serves as both the hockey manager, scheduling ice time for the entire youth program (ever at the weather’s mercy), and a coach for the 8U and Learn to Skate teams. Like all coaches at Clark Park, Merlos is a volunteer. If it was happenstance that brought him here, it’s something much more profound that keeps bringing him back.
Venegas and Montemayor, meanwhile, have been here since 9:00 this morning. They left around 2 a.m. last night – Venegas, in particular, does far more work this weekend than he lets on. At the moment, he’s in net for his team from Ideal Group and under siege in a 7-2 loss to Garden City. The man’s been pelted with more rubber the past few days than anyone, but I suspect he enjoys it. When he emerges from the locker room a short while later, he’s carrying a bottle of whiskey from the Motor City Gas Distillery in his coat pocket, daring anyone bold enough to take a swig. When I take him up on it, gas is about what it tastes like.
We skate hard against DAC, harder than they seem to skate. It doesn’t matter. They’re working three-man weaves and circling our net like the 1980 Soviets, and we don’t have Mike Eruzione to even the scales. 2-0 after the first becomes 4-0 after the second, which ends in a 7-0 final. We can do nothing but tip our hats (and maybe seek out the tough guy that ran one of our players for no reason. (DM’s open, tips welcome.)) They were better.
The program is growing. Last year, according to Merlos, there were about 50 kids registered. This year, just over 100. And it’s growing at the right level, with most of the recent enrollees in in the four- to six-year-old age group. The teams, most of which are co-ed, practice five days a week and typically play about eight games per year. The schedule is thin because the program is comprised primarily of house teams that aren’t credentialed by the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association. “That’s something we’re working on for next year or the year after,” Merlos says. They’re also hoping to extend the season, says Benavides, by adding a spring team that would play indoors. The ice at Clark Park typically doesn’t last much longer than three months. “It’s hard,” says Benavides. “Once those sun rays come out in April...”
Probably more than any team in the field, DAC is here to win this thing. They fell short last year, so they returned with two teams and formed an All-Star squad with their best players. They’ve got several guys who played in college, not to mention three coaches who wear matching varsity jackets behind the bench. Barnum has some elite players themselves, including a couple guys who made it as far as the ECHL, but they don’t seem quite as gung-ho on winning. Their routine between games, their coach tells me, is to hunker down at a local bar. “DAC is probably drinking water and eating kale,” he grins.
For Venegas, this is the realization of a vision. He wanted the Clark Street Classic to be “as competitive as possible” when he conceived of it. While the general skill level is still pretty wide, the top talent is no joke, and it’s all veering toward that end of the spectrum. “The hockey just keeps getting better and better,” Venegas tells me a couple days after the tournament. “I was thinking today, ‘You know what, that was kind of like the outdoor adult amateur championship of the city of Detroit.’ We had good-enough teams where we could say, ‘Hey, these are the best adult teams in Detroit.’ Originally it was just guys getting together and having some fun being downtown, but the hockey’s just gotten so good over the last few years.”
One of three main winter fundraisers for Clark Park, the tournament is an undoubted success. Venegas acknowledges it’s not cheap to enter – a cost of $1,800 per team – but that’s kind of the point considering the cause. This year it raises over $15,000, $14,000 of which will be split between the Clark Park youth hockey program and repairs for the rink. (The rest will go to the Clark Park Coalition’s general budget.) Among other things, Benavides says the money will help fund the spring league he’s hoping to get off the ground. “Some of these kids are here every day,” Benavides says. “I’m glad we can offer them hockey throughout the winter, and Jesse is a big part of it.” And Venegas has bigger plans for next year, like maybe a big hospitality tent where people can buy food and beer. He’s looking for a company to sponsor it. Labatt Blue would be a fine choice.
“Some people want to keep (the rink) our secret, and in some ways it still kind of is our secret where we can go play. But we have so many cool things in Detroit that have been forgotten and that made the city so great, that it’s fun to get other people to discover them,” Venegas says. “I mean, Clark Park is an absolute gem in this city. And it's not just the rink. It's the people, and everything they do."
I’ll be back, so long as the Clark Park team wants me. I imagine most everyone that experienced it will return, too. There’s an outdoor rink in Southwest Detroit, hockey in the middle of Mexicantown, the vestige of a bygone era that doesn’t feel so distant when you take the ice.