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The mercenary life of beer-league hockey goalies

Goalies Christopher Bassels (right) and Andy Schonberger walk off the ice after playing opposing sides of a pick-up hockey game at the Upper Canada College in Toronto on Thursday, February 2, 2017.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Three or four times a week, John McLeod's cellphone will go off and he will toss his goaltending gear into the car.

Someone at a hockey rink needs a goaltender and McLeod is only too happy to oblige for an hour and a few dollars.

For a game at 1 p.m., McLeod says, he has to leave his house in Toronto at 12:15. After the game ends at 2 p.m., it is not unusual to be home by 3 o'clock, bringing his time spent to nearly three hours.

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"And that's for 30 bucks," he said.

McLeod is part of a band of vagabonds who provide adult recreational hockey its backbone. Without them, a lot of games in rinks across the country would never be played or would be a lot less fun.

These are not vagabonds in the traditional sense. Almost all of them have regular jobs and they all have a place to live. What they do not have is loyalty to one team. They are the hired guns of beer-league hockey – rental goalies.

Call one of the many services that provide these goaltenders for your league game or shinny session – you can also order one online or through an app – pay the going rate, which is $45 in most places, and someone such as McLeod or Dan Smith or Andy Schonberger will show up to play goal for your team or your scrimmage.

In the past 25 years, as goaltenders became harder to find because of age, injury or the escalating costs of equipment, rent-a-goalie services exploded across Canada. A quick online search produces a long list of them, from Smith's Goalies Unlimited, which has been around for 27 years, to MyPuck to Goaliestogo.com to Puck App, which lets you book a goalie with a few taps on your smart phone.

"This is my way of playing quite a bit but still having flexibility," said Schonberger, 36, a mechanical engineer by day in Toronto who spends his nights playing goal through Goalies Unlimited. "I'm not paying to be on a team and stuck with Tuesday nights where you're in that slot all the time and have to go.

"I'll have two weeks where work is crazy and I can't play. Then the next week, Dan [Smith] will give me four skates in three days. So I have tons of flexibility and I just love the game."

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The goaltender position has long posed problems for recreational teams and those who just rent the ice at an arena for an hour and play pick-up shinny. It can cost upward of $3,000 for a full set of equipment (Schonberger says you can pay $5,000 for high-end custom gear), which by itself means few people are attracted to the position in an already expensive sport. Add injuries and even for established teams in leagues having a goalie every week can be a recurring headache. Everyone who's ever been part of a shinny group knows the disappointment of shooting at a sweater hanging in the net or having to hit the posts to score if a goaltender fails to show up.

"Even 20 years ago when I started playing goal, if a team was playing once a week and didn't have a goalie some guy would say, 'I'll go in net,'" says Smith, who joined Goalies Unlimited for extra practice when he decided to switch from being a forward and eventually bought the company. "But with the cost of equipment today, and the composite sticks people are using mean everyone can wire the puck so the chances of getting hurt are higher, you don't get that many goaltenders any more."

Smith says the number of goalie services exploded in the wake of a television series called Rent-a-Goalie, which ran on Showcase from 2006 to 2008. The half-hour comedy series won a string of awards and chronicled the adventures of a haphazard young man who ran a goalie-rental service out of his family's coffee shop.

"That was the one major thing that changed the business," Smith said. "We helped market the show by putting 100 goalies on Bay Street to hand out promotional cards. We got more views on our web page and more calls but it also meant more people starting the same business."

Despite the increased competition, Smith, who runs his business out of Fort Erie, Ont., says he cannot keep up with the demand. He has about 50 goalies on his roster of varying ability, including four women, and he still plays as often as 10 times a week himself. He says he is the oldest goalie on the roster at 55. His youngest netminder is 18.

Aside from the scarcity of goaltenders, the major factors in the increased demand are the rise of women's hockey and the growing popularity of summer hockey and ball hockey.

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"We're getting a lot of women calling for goalies now, even asking for men because there are not enough women goalies to go around," Smith said. "Summer hockey has grown about 50 per cent from a few years ago. Men today are also finding ball hockey is good exercise at a much cheaper cost so there's a demand for goalies there as well.

"We go year-round now and we're covering ice time between 5 in the morning to 12 at night."

Traditionally, goaltender was considered a position for eccentrics and Smith says his roster may not be deep in oddballs but it is an eclectic group. He was a jockey at Woodbine Racetrack in the 1980s until injuries ended that career. He moved on to be a horse-racing official and is now a project manager connected to a religious organization.

"There are goalies from all walks of life who do this," he said. "They are police officers, actors or construction workers."

One of the best goaltenders on Smith's roster is McLeod, who is also 55. He is a film actor, among other jobs, and like Smith and Schonberger, says despite the constant demand it is almost impossible to make a full-time living as a rental goalie.

For a one-hour game, for example, Goalies Unlimited charges the team $45. The goalie gets $30 and the service gets $15. If the session is before 9 a.m. or after 11 p.m., the charge is $50 with the extra $5 going to the goaltender.

But both Schonberger and McLeod point out they do not get paid for gas, an increasing problem given the traffic in the Greater Toronto Area, so both tend to stick to calls close to their homes. And getting $30 does not mean you only put in one hour. Neither goaltender knows anyone who does it for a living other than in short stints between jobs.

"But if you're going to the gym, you'll eat up two hours and you won't get paid," McLeod said. "Hockey is a great workout. It sure beats doing cardio at the gym. After a good game, even against crappy players, it's a great workout.

"If you wanted to make money at this, you would have to join multiple services and stack your games."

Schonberger, in addition to his demanding job as a mechanical engineer, is married and has two young children. But he also has a deal with his wife about goaltending, which means he usually plays between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.

"The general rule of thumb is she really doesn't care as long as the kids are in bed, I've done my fatherly duties and the homework is done," he said.

Both McLeod and Schonberger say they put all of the money they make into gas and new equipment. Schonberger, who admits he likes to splurge on the most expensive custom-made equipment, says the wear-and-tear means he needs one new piece every year. That means an outlay of anything from $300 for pants to $600 for skates to as much as $1,000 for a helmet. Sticks at $150 are a constant expense because the other players are all shooting harder thanks to composite sticks and the shots do the most damage to goal sticks.

"You can go cheaper but I found through experience I want pro-level gear," Schonberger said. "I don't want to be hurt and I want it to last."

Injuries are the major hazard of the job. McLeod and Schonberger say the most common injuries for goalies are groin-muscle strains, back and knee injuries. Getting hit by the puck is not as dangerous, thanks to improvements in equipment, but it can still be a problem.

"I had seven or eight weeks off last year with a groin injury," Schonberger said. "As I get older the injuries start to happen.

"I have bruises galore, that happens all the time. I have one on my arm right now that's purple. I tell my son look, I'm tough. But when it happens I try not to cry."

The quality of rental goaltenders varies as much as their day jobs. This can be an issue, especially when it comes to leagues, who have concerns about ringers. However, just about every service allows those paying for goalies to rate them on their websites so people have an idea of what they are getting. Services also have long-term connections to leagues so the right goalies can be sent along when they are needed.

Smith says McLeod, who played university hockey and a little in the professional minor leagues, is one of his most valuable goalies because he can tailor his game to the skill level of the group he plays with. But the human factor also means even a good goaltender such as McLeod can have a bad game. He has played for groups from former NHLers (yes, even they need goaltenders) to ankle-benders and says the common thread for hockey players is that they all are usually understanding when he has an off-night, even if they are paying for it.

"Yes, it can happen but if you try hard and you're friendly they understand," McLeod said. "If I do play like crap I apologize and they accept it."

Despite the injuries and the driving around, all three goaltenders say their main motivation is simply a love for the game.

"I'll do it until I can't do it any more," Schonberger said.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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