The Comeback

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After some serious consideration, I agreed to participate in a Celebrity game, during the World Cup last year. Beforehand, I’d skated with a number of ex-NHL players and friends of the group, consisting mostly of gliding on one leg, trying to stay out of the way. While I didn’t embarrass myself during the game, it was quite apparent work to be competitive, was necessary.

A few weeks later Andy Tocchet, a friend of mine, asked if I was interested in joining his team in Markham’s Over 60 Division. The previous year I’d casually mentioned to keep me in mind if he was ever looking for players. I confessed that I hadn’t played for 12 years and even after a few skates the previous month, still a long way from contributing like he’d expect. He mumbled not to worry and didn’t care when I mentioned Punchy, a childhood friend of ours, who is a great guy, but not much of a hockey player (that’s being kind) was probably better than me. Andy immediately replied,

“Yeah but you will get better every game, pylons will always be pylons. Besides, the most important rule on our team is “don’t forget the beer!”

My new teammates did a double take when I limped into the dressing room our first game that I managed to get through without coughing up the puck, or making any real bonehead plays. The extra slow play also benefitted my game, matching the pace extraordinarily in sync. I had that feeling a player never loses arriving home very sore that first evening, how much I missed the game.

To see any improvement, I knew it would take more than one skate a week and now play three times on a weekly basis. I skate with a number of fellow retirees; some who play 3-5 times a week and these guys can really play. Tournaments are plentiful and in February, I will be playing in the Ontario Senior Games in Cobourg, representing Markham.

Some of the subtle differences during my 12-year absence besides the obvious older looking faces, weren’t much different. Once the puck’s dropped, the competitive juices fire up, igniting the banging, hacking and hooking from both teams; all part of the game. Most infuriating is the slashing at the shaft of sticks, like lumberjacks at a woodchopper’s ball. With composites $150+, this drives me bananas.

I noticed our bench shorten as the opening game progressed, due to pulled hamstrings, sore backs or groins; players preferring to sit, thus avoiding further damage. Unlike years ago, it would be life and death to sit out a shift with a minor knick or sore, but at our older age, pains don’t fade as easily the next day.

Beer League Hockey is still beer league hockey, regardless of what age you are a participant and ours is no exception. “Going Up” is substituted with “The Duch” in reference to the Duchess Pub in Markham, the unofficial clubhouse and a staple for men’s sports in the area. A player’s evaluation in ranking (for drafting purposes when selecting the teams each year) is dependent upon his patronage at the “Duch” with teammates after games. A “third line” plugger who contributes to the camaraderie in the dressing room and “The Duch,” has a greater market value than the “superstar” who just shows up for the hockey, departing immediately following the game.

Guys point out it’s irrelevant if they win or lose, but surprisingly know the teams ranking in the standings; a common occurrence in beer league hockey. After all, first pick for the colour T-Shirt bestowed on the Champions of the League, is at stake.

Accumulating 12 minutes in penalties, garners a warning letter; crossing the 18-minute threshold lands you in the stands for a game. It’s fascinating how over the years, applications from guys that consistently don’t “get it,” are somehow misplaced or lost.

There is always that one guy who thinks he can still really dangle at the expense of the guys he’s playing with (doesn’t pass), thus no one wants to play with him. Best remedy for playing on the same wing as this hotshot is to go offside a few times on purpose.

Every team has that nuisance player who competes like the Stanley Cup is the prize and seems to regularly be in the middle of every skirmish. Yet this win at all cost player who acts like he has a handful of rings and a bio to match; is playing in the best league he’s ever played.

Every team also has that one guy who never has any tape, forgets socks or some piece of equipment, which is a laughable misdemeanor. However, arriving with no beer for post game is an unforgiveable offense. One of the veterans (tough to single out on a team of 60+ year olds) was extremely upset recently because he left home without his post game beer. He considered not playing, sighing it seemed pointless until a few guys came to his rescue offering to cover his shortcomings.

A beer-leaguer’s biggest fear while waiting for the Zamboni to clean the ice is the sudden movement of the dressing room door, sending an eerie silence amongst the ten players; the dreaded arrival of the eleventh man! The late straggler means one forward will work through the lines, and even at 60-years of age its still mathematically challenging for some players to rotate through six players over a 45-minute game.
After our game the other night, a very serious conversation took place at the Duch concerning an alarming incident that had taken place earlier in the evening. A player on another team apparently broke a commandment of the Code. In sports, the Code is a critical component of the game because the players police themselves. Don’t run up a score; never fight a player at the end of a shift, avoid contact with a goalie; mostly common sense. In our league, a code violation could lead to expulsion, i.e. another application misplaced. The individual in question prior to his game entered the dressing room while the previous team was still in the midst of enjoying post-game pops. The Code emphatically states no entry until 10 minutes left in the game; coupled with the 15-minute flood leaves plenty of time to get changed. This guy plunked himself down, informing the team it was time to leave, even though 14 minutes remained on the clock. He was severely chastised by the team’s captain. It was decided he’d be subject to a further reprimand from his own teammates with a warning if the problem persists, another future application may vanish.

The common denominator for any player is the competitive environment that exists no matter what the level of hockey. It’s what distinguishes the sport from others because of the challenge to master more than one skill (skating, passing, shooting). The camaraderie created in every dressing room is unmatched in anything we will accomplish in our lifetime. Only a hockey player who has experienced this feeling will grasp the concept. Rarely does a player finish a game, change and bolt without taking part in some of the post game banter.

In summary I’ll leave you with one thought that is undeniable; in beer-league hockey no matter whether you win or lose, you won’t drink any less!