Hockey magic on thin ice
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.