Hi! This is a series about my journey into the world of men’s league/rec league hockey in southeastern Virginia. Having never played before at the age of 24 I decided I wanted to, and thought I’d share my thoughts along the journey. Is it great? Am I an idiot? Have tips? Feel free to let me know!
I’ve loved hockey since I started watching in spring of 2002. Since then it’s been a slippery slope. First just the Red Wings, then the rest of the NHL, then Olympics, then outside the NHL. Soon enough came fantasy hockey, reading blogs, listening to podcasts. Then talking on my friend’s podcast once given the persona “Dr. Dad, with a PhD in all things hockey.” I don’t know nearly enough about hockey to claim such a title, but I go with it. I’m generally known as a guy who will talk anything about hockey and I’ve learned to embrace such a description on campus and on the internet.
So when my fraternity brother and close friend Nick started talking about playing hockey, I was intrigued. In high school when I pitched the idea to my parents, it was immediately shot down. In hindsight I can’t blame them. It’s a dangerous sport. Finding a place to play in Charlotte, North Carolina would be difficult compared to Michigan, where my parents are from. It’s understandable to be weary about investing $1000+ in equipment for a sport I’m not even sure if I like. But now living in southeastern Virginia, seven years removed from my parents’ care, and with the resources of a severance check from my time in the Navy at my disposal, I begin to seriously consider jumping in with both feet.
Such a consideration requires serious research though. I decide the best course of action would be to watch Nick play a game or two and see what the league is like. If I’m going to get into this, I definitely want to play with someone I know. Driving to the rink that night I’m quite apprehensive. How serious are these guys? Will there be little tolerance for someone just learning the sport? Is there a serious risk of injury? How much does it cost? There are many questions on my mind as I pull up to the Chilled Ponds in Chesapeake. This is the only rink in the area, so I know this is where I’m playing if I choose to do so. I stroll in and meet Nick at the bar, and after a beer or two he heads to the locker room and I make my way to the stands. Nick isn’t the only player to indulge a bit before playing the game, so right away I get the idea that this isn’t too serious. The possibility exists that these are some serious professionals though (drinkers and skaters alike.)
I sit in next to a couple of children and girlfriends of players and I watch the warm-up unfold. Nick is generally your stereotypical short ,angry, Italian from Long Island, but he looks positively delighted to be on the ice. I watch him skate in the warm up and try to wonder where I’d fit in. This is Nick’s second rec season playing ice hockey. While he’s played street hockey when he was younger, he hasn’t learned to skate as well as the rest of the guys. None of them, on either team, seem to mind. There’s no yelling and screaming at someone when they goof up. No one is breaking sticks on goal posts or getting into scrums when the whistle blows. It appears to be your normal men’s “C” league family friendly game. I feel like I would be accepted in this mix of skilled guys and newbies.
And then it begins.
I’ve always considered hockey more of a gentleman’s game. Sure it’s brutally violent but there’s a level of class and respect to it too. The handshakes, not kicking a guy when he’s down. It was always more of a way of life to me than a sport, (Sean Avery, Matt Cooke, Raffi Torres excluded). The way the game unfolded seemed to confirm and refute this idea all at the same time.
One guy on Nick’s team, The Chiefs with Slapshot inspired jerseys to boot, doesn’t like how one guy hooks him. So he swings his stick at him like he’s a lumberjack. Curse words are flying left and right, but at least it’s from team to team. Part of me is relieved to have some sort of hockey to watch, as the withdrawal symptoms have been rough since the Kings won the cup. Another part of me is horrified at what I’m watching. The other team, the Ice Pirates, is terrible. Yet they seem to take it seriously. One guy starts screaming at a Chief and starts to take off his gloves but a referee steps in. A goal or two later and these two actually get to throw down, nothing too spectacular though. I’m paying most of my attention to the wings, so I don’t get to see when Nick gets run into the boards. Some of his team doesn’t take nicely to this and a brawl ensues. Some halfway decent hockey even occurred! A goal here and there, a few different plays unfold, but no one seems to know what they’re doing too awfully well. Maybe a couple guys can break out and leave people in the dust, but they don’t look like they belong in “C” league. I feel like I could fit in with this skill level without too much chastising, but these are a violent bunch.
I’m told after the game that this is a no-checking league. This explains why most collisions look accidental and half the guys skating aren’t wearing shoulder pads. The two gentleman involved in the following sequence, however, certainly were.
An Ice Pirate gets tossed out of the game. He walks out from by the bench and swings his stick at the glass of the Chief’s bench as he walks to the locker room. The Chief’s captain leans out from the bench and yells (forgive me for the language) “Why don’t’ you come say that to my face you fucking faggot?!?” This is about the 6th time I’ve heard this word used and the third period isn’t even close to over. The Ice Pirate obliges, turns around and a brawl ensues behind the bench. Players are confused, refs are rushing off the ice to break it up, I’m trying to keep children from getting too close to get hurt. My gut instinct is to try to break the fight up. I’ve always been more of a lover than a fighter and it seems in poor taste for a man to fight like this with his own children watching. Self-preservation puts a quick end to this idea when I realize I’m wearing shorts and sandals and they are in full pads and razor sharp skates. The fight gets broken up and the two involved are ejected. Next week I’m surprised to see them back, and other spectators reassure me that my first impression to this league is atypical of what happens most nights. The remainder of the game passed without much excitement, soon the game is over and I barely know what to think.
The Chiefs win 6-2. I meet Nick at the bar afterwards and I can’t think of what to say. What am I disgusted with most? The homophobic slurs? The blatant disregard for safety of one’s team or opponents? The stick swinging? The brawl that took place in front of the captain’s children? There’s twenty different reasons I could give to say that this isn’t for me.
And yet the only thing I can manage to squeak out to Nick is “I want in.”
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