When you’re first falling in love with hockey as a kid, the gap between the basement hockey you play with your dad and the professionals is small. From your perspective, you’re a hockey player – it’s pretty much your entire identity – and when hockey players reach a certain age, they play on TV, in the NHL, for their favourite team, and it’s super fun.
Like almost all young hockey players, one of the toughest things for me was realizing I wouldn’t make the show, along with stopping both ways and getting hockey glove stink off my hands (one out of three isn’t so bad, and I can totally stop left). It wasn’t an instant thing, I just started noticing the group of kids on the ice before me were faster, and my group kept getting the second time slot with shredded ice, even though we were all supposedly trying out for the same team. Also, I’d get cut.
In grade five, a few sixth graders set my bar. One of them, Richard Hamula, was clearly the best and went on to have a great Golden Bears career. That’s ok, thought ten-year-old me, it just means he’ll be like, a top line centre and I’ll be a fourth line winger, when we both make the NHL. My only real worry was if we’d play for the Oilers at the same time.
We laugh now, but youth hockey matters when you’re a kid, sometimes too much, and the teen years only get more intense. You stay up at night feeling actual pressure and disappointment after a bad game. Kids, especially goalies, regularly break down and cry. I don’t deny that could build character, maybe, but I think we too rarely tell kids that, truly, it does not freakin’ matter, even if they do have a chance of making pro.
My five-year-old cousin Owen thankfully doesn’t feel the stress of competitive youth hockey yet, but he already takes it seriously. It may just be basement hockey, but when he’s done wrong, he knows to go to the penalty box (stairs) and feel shame.
Two minutes for being adorable!
The good news is that, after a decade of hockey overload, and all the memories that go with it, the next stage of your career gets even better – no tryouts, no practice, you play once a week and make even better memories (less crying, too). It lasts as long as you can lace ‘em up and most important BY FAR, there’s beer. The technical term is recreational hockey, but really, it’s beer league.
This isn’t to say it’s perfect, and no pointless analysis of beer league would be complete without its two major drawbacks: late games and head cases.
First, the absolute worst part: head cases. I don’t just mean they’re the worst part of hockey, beer league or otherwise, they’re the worst part of life. The guys who take things too seriously, who stay up at night thinking about the opponent who in some way slighted them, intentionally or not, instead of thinking about how the penalty they took to get revenge cost their team the game. Big but fragile egos on skates that didn’t get enough basement hockey time with their dads, and never learned not to be violent when things don’t go their way. You saw them growing up and sadly still see them today.
Last season we saw a guy charge a ref after getting ejected for his third body checking penalty. The ref was skating backwards and defensively two-hand pushed the guy away when he was about to make contact. After soccer-flopping and laying face down on the ice for a good 20 seconds, he miraculously got up to join his team in surrounding the ref, all screaming that he should eject himself for “assaulting” a player, and just hoping my team would throw a punch while defending him from them. It was at the end of the second period before a flood, and they refused to come back. In the moment it was mostly funny, since our team got a good 20-minute scrimmage, but to think the flopper might be raising a kid kinda makes it a bummer.
But things do get understandably heated. There’s lots of testosterone flying around and it’s too tempting to slash when you’re literally holding the perfect slashing tool, in a slash-ready way, all night. The key is to keep it on the shin pads, maybe the pants, then focus your anger on out-trash talking your opponent when play stops. You’ll let off some verbal steam and, if you’re not out of breath, you could crack your teammates up.
Anyways, on the off chance any Oilersnationers are head cases, or any Flamesnationers came across this while looking for a McDavid post to hate-read, feel free to comment on what we’re all missing.
On to late games.
You’re at work. You receive an email from your team GM saying the league has posted the schedule online. You scan the times, knowing over the half the games will be on weeknights. Most start with single digits, even a 6:30, which is bad in its own way but you’ll take it. Then a 9:00 and a 9:45 – that’s pushing it but if it’s the late end that’s great. Then you see them. Even before you reach the end of the season, they jump out – 10:45, 11:15…11:30. All weeknights.
You feel a tiny bit of dread for future you, because even if puck drop is 9:30 you aren’t falling asleep before midnight, and that’s if the rink is close to home and you had a good game (not the same as in youth hockey, because losing or costing your team still sucks but then beer).
I’d also take an 8AM weekend over a double-digit weeknight. Having a good skate and a beer before 11 in the morning, then going home to cook bacon and watch football, is the ultimate Sunday.
For sleep and health purposes, a 4PM Sunday game is where it’s at, but the actual best time, assuming you don’t have plans, is late night on a Saturday, near a bar, when you know the other team is buzzed too.
Because you’re never quick to leave the rink, if you can help it, and no one minds being early. Between the pre-game gear up and the post-game parking lot breakdown (weather permitting), hockey has an atmosphere that other amateur sports don’t (provided your team isn’t full of head cases, as they tend to be terrible teammates, too).
On any given night, the dressing room is the best part of the game, whether you win or lose. Maybe it’s the comrade mentality, or because we’re all in a rectangle facing each other, or we’re just delirious from the stink. But for whatever reason, out of all possible social scenarios, the hardest laughs happen while wearing towels or less with your teammates, even though you only see most of them up to 30 times a year. It’s a whole circle of friends you wouldn’t otherwise have, who know you just a bit differently than any civilian.
Married guys seem to revel in the beer league environment the most, especially after they have kids. It’s often the only family-free hours they get in a week, and they savour each second like the spray of an empty water bottle after way too long a shift.
We had a game the day after a teammate’s wedding, and once it was over, we could hardly move. In fact, Brad couldn’t even stay awake. He got home from the wedding around 2AM, woke at 7AM to take his son to hockey, then to a birthday party, before playing in our game. We saw him dozing in the corner, arms crossed with his feet on his bag. We tried bribing the rink attendant with beer to let us stay, but he had to clean the room. Brad looked genuinely depressed as he left for home, because the dressing room was “the only place I can sleep.”
I sometimes make notes in my phone about ideas to write about, similar to a comedian writing joke ideas. I’ve always thought that if I did that often enough in the dressing room, I’d have enough funny for a script that could rival Slapshot, or at least have some epic burns that would crush at a TV roast that was for some reason about a division (TBD) hockey team from Edmonton. Because when you get the right group – guys who all have a high Dressing Room Presence (DRP), the most important stat in beer league even though it doesn’t show up online – anything goes in the room, and you occasionally get comedy gold.
Thing is, I’m not that diligent with my note taking, and when I found the two quotes I did enter over the years, they were way too vulgar and mean-spirited, for this site and even large parts of the internet. So maybe take a moment to remember one of your own.
Speaking of Slapshot, isn’t there an unwritten rule that no beer league team can be the Chiefs, just like no one can wear number 99? Of course we all want to wear Chiefs jerseys, so that means no one can, right? I swear this is a legit concern, and I’m not just bitter from last year’s playoffs.
The greatest beer league is beer league with the greatest former NHL players, something that doesn’t happen if you aren’t a former great yourself, or don’t have thousands of dollars to attend the greatest hockey player’s fantasy camp. Or if you’re Oilersnation friend and former Gregor Show producer Meg Storms. Through one of her first media jobs, she got to go down to California and skate with Gretzky, Coffey, Hull, Muller, McSorely and like 20 rich old guys – twice.
She wisely brought her equipment, and after some easy camera work found herself putting sticks in the middle with Gretzky, instead of hugging him constantly, like I would’ve. They ended up on the same team and he suggested they start together on D. The puck dropped, Gretzky made it come to him with his Neo powers, “and then he passed me the puck,” she said as my jaw dropped and I hated her just a little bit.
That’s it. That’s the story. She was skating on ice and Wayne Douglas Gretzky passed her the puck with his stick. After that, what else is there to do in life? It’d be like hanging out with Jay-Z or smelling Jessica Alba’s hair. You wanna do both but you know in reality you’ll always be watching them from a crowd.
Beer league doesn’t draw big crowds, at least not until playoffs, but it shows us why we play hockey to begin with: to play. It takes us back to our basement hockey days, before all the super serious BS, when we had pure, uncut fun. The difference is that now we can really skate, more or less, and skating, even crappily (for an amateur), is an amazing thing – most people on earth can’t do it. As the years go on you get better, too. Maybe not smarter, but more…economical. You lose the young man speed and hustle but gain the old man brain and eyes, like you’re watching from the press box.
In a way, beer league is us saying to nature: we don’t care what conditions you give us, we’re going to create a game that uses them, and then we’re going to re-create those conditions indoors. Then we’re going to make smaller rooms where we’ll drink and laugh and soak in our stench while making fun of each other and sharing dirty stories. If you do it right, you won’t even remember the score.
*cracks beer, sips spilling foam*