It is, admittedly, an acquired taste, but for those who cannot get through another dark week of this black fall without seeing a hockey game – free of charge, of course, just like on the television – the opportunities are virtually endless.
Just walk down to the neighbourhood rink around dawn, or on most midafternoons, or on any night after children’s bedtime and you will find a game.
It will be, well, different. But it will still be hockey. Sort of.
There will be no scoreboard to tell you who is winning or who needs to score before the Zamboni roars out 10 minutes to the hour, no matter even if the greatest game ever played (by these players) is tied.
There will be, in some circumstances, such a variety of colours, socks never matching tops, that you will need to accept on faith that one team is dark and one is light. In more organized play, one team will have one pure colour, one another – in best situations with socks to match.
There will be no referees to make the calls, leaving you to decide which team shouting “Offside!” and which team screaming “Up yours!” is right.
There will be no other fans to let you know when to cheer or boo. You will be entirely on your own – likely the first fan this group has ever had if you don’t count the guy who was having an affair. And even she stopped coming the moment he finally moved in with her.
Consider this, then, The Desperate Fan’s Guide to Beer League Hockey.
There are different rules here than in the NHL. And there are certain things that any fan walking into a local rink needs to understand before the game at hand can be truly appreciated:
One goaltender showing up is worse than no goaltender showing, especially if some idiot thinks the goalie should switch ends after each goal. Worse is having to hit the goalposts or crossbars of an empty net to count a goal and worst of all is an empty jersey hung from the crossbars. Forty years of beer-league statistics have shown that, invariably, the empty jersey or the goalposts win.
If you see unhappy faces on a bench, count the forwards. Players despise it when an extra player shows up and has to be worked through the lines. Far worse, of course, is being that extra player being worked through the lines.
The most important person in the rink will not wear a “C” or an “A” but will be carrying a shovel. While NHL players are allowed to skate out while the Zamboni floods the ice, beer-league players are forbidden to so much as drop a puck on the ice until the Zamboni is entirely off and the guy shovelling off the dropped snow decides to close the doors. Those foolish enough to skate out early will face the wrath of the Arena God.
The most valuable player in beer-league hockey is not the rock-solid stay-at-home defenceman, but the fireman, medic or, in the best possible circumstances, the doctor who knows how to work the defibrillator.
It helps to be able to tell which players have played organized hockey and which players have not. Those who have never played have their heads down all the time and have no sense of position. Those who have a sense cannot forget what it felt like to be cold-cocked at centre ice or what it was like having the coach rip into you when you weren’t where you should have been when the other guys scored.
Equipment can be a helpful indicator of skill level. Brand-spanking-new equipment and skates usually mean “never played.” Elbow pads over jerseys means “shouldn’t play.” No visors and half-visors suggest both vanity and a certain level of skill. Players who do not seem to own hockey socks but play, instead, in sweatpants or even rags are usually the most skilled.
Each game, without failure, will have a river-rat player. He is the guy who can skate all over the ice, hangs on to the puck endlessly, rarely lifts his head and passes only once he runs out of room. He can’t get used to boards.
The most annoying player on each side is not the Matt Cooke – Ken Linseman – Claude Lemieux type player who trash talks and trips. It is, rather, the guy who never comes off the ice. He does not realize when his linemates are – he may not even know who they are – and he believes his stamina is limitless, so long as he coasts.
Fights sometimes happen. They’re real, as in really embarrassing.
Almost every group will have one player – often grey – who still thinks he has a chance in the June entry draft. He is usually fairly good, compared to what else is on the ice, but only 1 per cent as good as he thinks he is.
That quick little player with the ponytail who actually seems to know what’s going on, who skates better than anyone else and who passes selflessly – good chance it’s the daughter of one of the old farts, home for a study break.
Though the Zamboni is out, the action is far from over. The new fan to beer-league hockey will follow the team into the dressing room.
Where the real effort involves taking off the skates.
And the best competition – in those shrinking jurisdictions that still allow such luxuries – will be over who can claim first that extra beer.