Over two years ago in our northern Michigan community the local college constructed a brand new indoor ice arena. Families signed up their little ones for learn to skate sessions and mite hockey leagues, and we joined the rest of the civilized world in what has become the “soccer” of the 21st century—hockey.
This sport wasn’t only for the kids, though. The older boys dusted off their old equipment or bought new gear, and a whole batch of hockey newbies tried the sport for the first time. We’re a pretty varied group. On the five teams I’ve played on, the ages of players have ranged from 16-60’s. I’ve played with or against students, cops, doctors, E.M.T.’s, firemen, network administrators, school teachers, postal workers, and stay at home dads. We’ve got a mom who plays goalie, and one of our best skaters played college hockey over 40 years ago.
We all share a love of hockey. We play it, watch it, and talk about it in the locker room while we get dressed to play it. It’s an addictive sport that keeps the guys coming back to the adult draft league, team leagues, and tournaments throughout the year. Some of the guys played as kids but had to leave the sport once they grew too old to play in the leagues any longer. Other guys, like me, played on frozen ponds, rivers, and rented ice at far away ice rinks growing up but never had the opportunity to play organized hockey because their parents couldn’t afford it or their town didn’t have a rink. Some saw this as the opportunity that they had always felt they missed out on while growing up.
There are some coarse words, hurt feelings, and a little contact from time to time. We see our share of penalties. But the guys seem to have a mutual respect for one another despite the skill level. Some of the players can barely stand up on skates, can’t handle the puck that well, or aren’t much in the passing department. That doesn’t matter in the draft league. All are welcome and the teams are put together with a balance of skilled and unskilled players. Basic standings are kept but I couldn’t tell you how many goals I had in the last league or even how many games we won. It’s still competitive, though, and if you play year round, you end up being on some winning teams and on some teams that seem to have a better time off the ice in the locker room with a few beers and a rowdy bull session.
On Fridays we have “drop-in” hockey, where anyone over 16 can come in and play a pick up game. Teams are determined solely by what color jersey you wear (light or dark) and nobody keeps score. Sometimes we have goalies and other times we have to use a piece of vinyl with a goalie printed on it and holes for the scoring zones called a “shooter tutor”. There’s a core group of people who come but the rosters change depending on varying work schedules, school holidays, and out of town visitors. The attitude is light and fun and it’s a great time for everyone. It’s the on ice equivalent of a street basketball game.
We’ve developed a tight knit little community of “hockey families”. Our sons and daughters play together on teams and some of the guys coach or assistant coach. When one of the kid or adult players gets hurt, we hear about it through the locker room grapevine. Guys who travel in different social circles and otherwise wouldn’t run into each other become friends. Hockey moms and dads strike up kinships in the stands and commiserate about the road trips, the challenge of getting the kids to practices and games, and the rising costs of league fees, keeping their children (and spouses) in equipment, skates, and sticks. Parents who previously didn’t know what constituted an off-sides or a high stick penalty are now experts on line changing and passing strategies.
Besides the hockey itself (which is fun for people of all ages, backgrounds, or experience levels) there is a whole other level of camaraderie and sense of belonging to the greater hockey community that comes with being part of the sport. Living the “hockey life” can be fun for the whole family and also a fantastic way to spend time together getting exercise and having fun. And for an hour each week, anyone can be a Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, or Steve Yzerman in their own mind.