This weekend I traveled to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to visit family. One
day, while speaking with my old college roommate, he suggested I write about a rink few people know about, but one that has shaped the lives of many hockey players. In the Keweenaw Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula in general there are rinks that could be classified as legendary including this particular rink, though few people know about it.
Houghton, MI is the self-proclaimed ‘birthplace of hockey.’ Without going into detail, hockey has a rich and storied tradition in this remote area of Michigan. A rink that most people have never heard about, including native residents of Houghton is the Oskar Dome. To completely understand this rink you have to understand the region in which it’s located.
When you take highway M-26 and head west out of the city of Houghton, there is a road that runs along the south side of the Portage Canal. This canal separates the cities of Houghton and Hancock. There is a single lift bridge that crosses the canal connecting the two cities.
The road that runs along the south side of the canal is aptly called Canal Road. Driving down canal road to the north is a picturesque view of the canal and the houses that line the water. To the south I was greeted by a rainbow of colors from
the autumn leaves of the large trees. The red, yellow and orange hues are almost blinding as the sunlight reflects off of them. With every wind gust several leaves fall from the sky, an insight to the flakes of snow that will be falling in the near future.
In the eight minutes of driving you are taken from the rural urban environment of Houghton to the absolute rural environment of Stanton Township. Once you cross this threshold, you are that much closer to the beauty of the dome that awaits.
Once you reach the 30 MPH speed limit zone, you are officially in Oskar. There isn’t a sign letting you know you are there, but trust me, you’re there. As you approach the Oskar Dome you will be able to see it from across the Oskar Bay. The road takes a sharp turn to the right around the bay and if you have been paying attention to the road signs; Liminga, Mattila, Ruohonen, you will understand you’re in ‘Little Finland.’ If you haven’t realized this yet making the turn around the bay and seeing the American and Finnish flags prominently displayed will make it apparent.
Since the turn is 90 degrees you have to slow down. Good thing, otherwise you may drive right past the Oskar Dome without even realizing it. Once the road straightens out, the Dome will be to the west. There is a sign in front of the Dome that reads ‘Kenner Ruohonen Memorial Dome.’ The Dome doesn’t resemble so much a dome as it does a metal facility typically seen in industrial settings.
Approaching the dome, I parked in the gravel parking lot. There is a small sign stating the established year of the dome and an American flag flies from the peak. There is a wooden sign above the door indicating public skate times, the rest of the time the ice is free to use.
Initially you would think the door is secured, but understanding the locale, there really is no need for this. Out here it’s rural, quiet, and everyone knows each other’s names. The people would have it no other way and take pride in their heritage and this lifestyle.
Walking in, to the right, you are greeted by a smaller than regulation sized rink with official boards and chain link fencing instead of Plexiglas. The dressing room is to your left and in the corner of the dressing room is where the hose used to ‘flood’ the ice is housed. There is a hole in the wall and in the roof, but this only adds to the mystique surrounding this rink. On this day, the lights were off and it was empty. In the beginning of October it is not quite cold enough to naturally freeze the water and create the ice surface.
During the spring and fall after the ice melts, the Michigan Tech University roller hockey team can be found out here using the dome as a practice facility. These players are imports and only know about the rink from the vets on the team who were privileged enough to acquire the information from former players. The magic in the Oskar Dome, however, happens during the winter.
Once the fields, roads and rooftops are completely snow covered signifying not only the drop in, but a constant below freezing temperature, the rink is ready to be flooded. Though I am not aware of who is responsible for the flooding of the ice surface, I would imagine it is the responsibility of the community members. More than likely some fathers of aspiring future Houghton Gremlin, Michigan Tech Husky and Detroit Red Wing players.
Once the ice is set, the code of conduct is pretty straightforward. Be respectful of others, clean up after yourself, leave the ice in better condition than you found it, and make sure you bring some shovels with you. There are no mechanical Zamboni’s out here, you are going to spend some time shoveling the snow and clearing the ice.
The moments of my college life that I spent out here were some of the greatest hockey moments I have had. You always met new players and if you didn’t bring your ‘A’ game you were going to be obsolete on the ice. There were the players that we imports referred to as ‘Oskar Dome Legends.’ These players were locals and sometimes had never even played organized hockey. They spent their nights on the ice at the dome and honed their skills playing games amongst themselves. If some of them only realized the talent they had could probably have taken them out of Oskar, maybe the families in this harrowed town would not be legendary in themselves.
When you talk about dirty dangles, ankle breaking dekes and nasty sauce, the Oskar dome never ceases to deliver. I would not be surprised if Pavel Datsyuk got some of his moves from these legends. The most unique thing about this dome, however, is that very few of these legends ever display this presence outside of the Oskar dome.
After spending a few hours on the rink, you are drenched in sweat. If you don’t understand, when the temperature is below freezing, it requires an extreme amount of exertion to work up a sweat. Playing against the local legends in the dome will cause you to exert yourself more than a traditional practice with your organized team. The funny thing about it is that as you are hunched over with your stick across your thighs, you can look up, and through the sweat dripping from your brow, see the legends smiling. You can do nothing but smile in this moment as you acknowledge the legends once again had their way with you.
If you want to witness some of the best hockey in the Keweenaw Peninsula and you happen to be crazy enough to venture to Houghton in the middle of the winter you need to skate the Oskar Dome. Remember to sharpen your skates and bring a shovel. If you really want to impress the legends bring a case of Mountain Dew. You will understand immediately why and silently thank me as soon as you step inside those hallowed walls.