This past September, I was invited to play in the Phil Esposito Hockey Classic, by a friend of mine, who organized the charitable event, during the World Cup. I hadn’t played men’s league for twelve years after hip replacement and the other waiting for its day to be transformed into a fabricated steel hinge as well. After some coaxing with assurances I wouldn’t be the worst and the friendly contest consisted of guys my vintage, playing mostly in slow motion, I decided to give it a try.
Early in 2016, freshly retired from Bay St. and after some coaxing, went for a skate, convincing myself it was how retirees spent their days. It was a very short-lived comeback and wasn’t a pretty site skating on one leg, no hands, a fear I was going to fall over at any moment; feeling everyday of my 61 years. Admittedly ego played a part, because after a brief time many years ago playing the game for a living, this certainly wasn’t how I wanted to be remembered. From the look of the guys in the room after my disastrous debut, I was making the right decision.
My introduction to men’s league, oh lets call it what it is, beer league hockey, began 30 years ago, at the urging of my younger brother who’s team was short players one weekend. I’d reluctantly skated with them one night at MacGregor Park in Scarborough, and truthfully, the motivating factor was to see how bad they were, particularly my brother Paul. Needless to say I wasn’t surprised and chuckled during the short drive home that evening, how far I’d lowered myself to play.
Against my better judgment agreed to play that Saturday on the condition I played defense (normally a forward but figured with only four defensemen I’d get more Ice). Leaving for the rink that afternoon, I asked my brother the name of the team, “The Stones,” he said.
I immediately thought I would regret this day but at the same time could be quite entertaining, so I kept an open mind. It was extremely tough to do when I arrived at Art Thompson Arena in Pickering, an hour later.
Walking into the rink I passed guys leaving who’d already played, dressed like they were headed to an Ozzy Osborne concert, hair past their shoulders, cigarette in mouth or hand, awkwardly carrying hockey bags and sticks, in a very unconventional hockey manner. Still shaking my head in bewilderment, I looked at the chalkboard listing game times; the Stones were playing on rink 1, dressing room 4; taking a second glance in hopes of seeing a more familiar name like the Whitby Dunlops or Barrie Flyers, it still read, Stones vs Green.
I knew most of the guys, but not all by name, monikers from the previous year like Greenie, Streeter, JW and Smitty were now substituted with Buzzy, Speedy, Hoovy and Peaky. The Blue and White, Leaf crested, Orillia Terriers classic sweater, was replaced by a god awful Polyester bright yellow jersey, with black and red stripes, without a crest (I still have it). The manager of the team said, years before they’d had sweaters designed with the Stones “Tongue” as the team logo, but were late ordering for this year.
On the bench one of the coaches with the seemingly pre required long scraggily hair, got things stirring by screaming the team anthem, “Start me up”.
My first shift was into the opening minute and before I knew it, I was paired off with a guy wearing a wire mask (another first). Beer league brawls I’d learn were quite common, although rarely was a punch thrown but rather, loud life threatening verbal blasts. Holding this guy back, he persisted to get in the scuffle; instinctively I grabbed him by the mask, jerking him to the ice.
Once things calmed, one of the referees tapped me on the shoulder and quietly said, “You look like you’ve played somewhere so you probably aren’t aware if you grab a mask it’s a 3 to 5 game suspension, so Ill give you break.”
Following the game, the soon to be familiar phrase, “Going up” echoed throughout the dressing room as players slowly peeled off their equipment. This of course meant, upstairs for a beer.
I hadn’t realized there was a watering hole upstairs and like a good teammate headed “up” with the lads.
My initial visit to the bar at Art Thompson that Saturday afternoon, wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced before and unmatched today. After placing my equipment in the car and heading up the stairs, the noise level increased every step. Entering the lounge was a sight too behold, even pausing momentarily, stunned as the sound magnified to rock concert proportions and before me was a room jam packed, rock music blaring from a juke box, smoke so thick, the other end was barley visible.
Once I adjusted to the surroundings, after a couple of pops, it really hit home. Here was a room full of guys playing hockey with their buddies joined by girlfriends, wives, other friends and even parents, first watching the game, then gathering in the lounge for drinks and socializing with other teams; everyone having a great time.
This was pucks, beers and rock n roll!!
It wasn’t a hockey lifestyle I was familiar with, but whose got it right I remembered thinking? These guys played once or twice a week, made a social day and night of it; having a blast with their friends. Or be a dope like me thinking it’s below my level of play, sitting at home by myself?
I played for the next twenty years, the same core of guys and at one time, was playing on four teams, loving every minute. The most enjoyment over the years was introducing friends who played high-level hockey to the beer leagues. The initial shock was consistent, very much like my own and similarly most played for years and many continue to play today.
Where else but beer-league hockey can you find teammates that arrive as the Zamboni circles the ice before your game?
Played in a six period overtime, to win a Championship and even today running into guys who were at the rink that day, fondly remembering the chaos created with all the games backed up for hours.
Played against guys emulating NHL players; the Gretzky impersonator who wore his equipment similar, sported a tucked in, number 99 sweater, copying all his on ice mannerisms, was my favourite, but the Tie Domi wannabe was a close second.
Once, a player on our team dropkicked his helmet over the glass landing on the top row of the stands, after a non-call against him. What he failed to realize was he couldn’t play with out a helmet and not one of his buddies standing nearby would toss his bucket back on the ice. He then had to trudge halfway around the rink, walking on cement followed by a hike up a dozen or so metal stairs, before one of his pals then tossed the helmet to him.
I spoke to a guy who once played three games in three days over a weekend and never went home; choosing to sleep in his car so he could enjoy the post game cocktails eliminating the worry about driving.
Every team had that one guy we all hated, who wanted to show the world his talents, by dangling around overweight, house league level, usually hung over, defensemen. He would never pass of course and the one time in ten he’d make a play, have a quick glance into the stands to see if his girlfriend was impressed.
The tough guys provided the most entertainment by far however. The game of hockey is a contact sport even in non-contact leagues, but the combination of buddies, girlfriends, pre-game beer or a hangover creates a lethal sense of bravery. These guys challenged the other team, their fans, and referees but outside of the odd skirmish, it was a lot of posing.
Years ago, the opposing teams tough guy was up to his usual idiotic tactics, without throwing a punch and rightfully tossed from the game. Our crowd of faithful followers proceeded to give him the jeers pretty good, as he was a well-known offender in the league. He was exiting the ice with the crowd above hurling obscenities; getting louder, the closer he got to the exit. He suddenly flipped his helmet off his head and in one motion head-butted the glass that made a sickening loud thump. The jeering spectators, along with the players on both teams, watched dumbfounded at this spectacle. He left the ice laughing hysterically.
I played with a group of my close friends Sunday mornings that not only were the team to beat most years, but held that distinction upstairs as well. The league scheduled our games late morning, knowing the Shandon boys guaranteed a busy afternoon (the bar opened at noon so the lads would only hang around after games if close to serving time). It was good business not lost on ownership at Art Thompson.
The life lesson taken from the game of hockey, whether house league, beer league, or pro is the friendships cemented, over the years of dressing room banter. It’s the number one regret 99% of hockey players miss the most when out of the game. By the way, over the years, the hockey at Art Thompson was very competitive and became known for some of the best men’s leagues in the city.
The long lasting friendships I’ve made playing with that first group, the Stones, I wouldn’t trade for anything. I love those guys! We still stay in touch today. They exemplified what the game really means, play hard, be good teammates, back each other up and have fun on and off the ice. What could be more Canadian than that?