If hockey is in your blood, it doesn’t matter how old you are: The need must be satisfied. Roddy Scheer has been skating for 30 years, and nothing gets between him and his Monday-night games with a bunch of guys who represent a true cross section of Seattle.
I howled into the phone to my wife as I pulled out of the parking lot at Highland Ice Arena in Shoreline, fresh from a couple of well-deserved postgame beers. My team, the Yellow Stream, had just defeated the heavily favored Blue Balls to win our second consecutive ice hockey championship in our Monday-night “old man’s” league. “Drive safe, and don’t wake me up when you get home,” she said, hanging up the phone before I had the chance to tell her how I had gotten two assists and played one of the best games of a very amateur hockey career spanning more than three decades. Coming from a hockey family back east—her kid brother even played a few seasons in the pros—she couldn’t care less about her middle-aged husband’s recreational athletics. But at least she lets me break free for a couple of hours every Monday night so I can get my ya-yas out, championship or not.
The fact that no fans, not even our own wives or kids, would want to attend our games doesn’t deter the 2,500 or so of us Seattle-area adult recreational ice hockey players from manning up at rinks like Highland every week, year-round. Some do it for the camaraderie, others for the workout, but all agree that ice hockey is the greatest sport on the planet. Playing regularly not only keeps the body in shape but the mind sharp as well, given how many split-second decisions a player must make during every shift out on the ice. It gets in your blood from the moment you hit your first slap shot.
Seattle isn’t much of a hockey town, at least in terms of spectator appeal. The only “pro” hockey here is played by the Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds and the Everett-based Silvertips, both 20-and-younger teams in the Western Hockey League. Against this backdrop of indifference, somehow a bunch of middle-aged duffers is keeping the great tradition of ice hockey alive by filling up various formal and informal leagues and pick-up games around town.
For the past 15 years, Smitty, a 40-something goalie and the self-appointed commissioner of our informal and totally unofficial “beer league” (goalies play free of charge, but they have to bring beer for everyone else), has secured three prime evening hours at the Highland rink on Monday nights for some four dozen of us—young and old, newbie and veteran—to tear it up out on the ice. The four teams compete for possession of the Miller Cup, a life-size replica of the National Hockey League’s championship Stanley Cup—except in our case the 4-foot-tall trophy is made from empty cans of Miller beer, long the postgame beverage of choice.
My teammates and opponents come from all walks—motorcycle mechanics and marketing executives, gourmand restaurateurs and greasy-spoon waiters, rock drummers and specialist surgeons, line workers and software programmers. But from the moment we lace up our skates, none of that seems to matter. Hockey is such a fast-paced, mentally intense and physically punishing game that everyone out there is focused on the task at hand: putting the puck in the other team’s net and keeping it out of our own. I know my teammates, most of whom hail from anywhere but Seattle originally (because kids here play soccer, not hockey), by nicknames like Gas Man, Flash, Crazy Legs and Powder, or by first names. And that’s the way everyone likes to keep it.
Even though our league is far from formal, some of us actually do care who wins (and our dues pay for referees). I am proud to say that the Miller Cup has spent a few weeks at my house on my mantel for family and friends to marvel at—until my wife told me it was time to get that disgusting thing out of our house and back to the rink where it belongs. On the Monday night of my team’s big final game against Blue Balls, the cup was waiting at the rink, ready to be given over to the victorious team, and I wanted it again.
But Blue Balls was stocked with talent, including Monday-night veteran and finesse playmaker extraordinaire Kelly at center, a hotshot former NHL prospect known to me only as “The Kid” on left wing, and a menacing yet avuncular tattoo-clad goon named Mike Sr. on right wing. And that was just the first line. (In ice hockey, most teams rotate through two or three “lines” of forwards, who skate hard for two-minute shifts before heading to the bench so fresher legs can take over.) Their second line was no cakewalk, either, consisting of three corn-fed cousins who had grown up playing pond hockey and seemed to pinpoint each other telepathically with cross-ice passes.
As I assessed the team during the pre-game warm-up, I was reassured that we were no slouches out there. The tone for our team was set by our captain, “Hates to Lose” Bob, a genteel wealth manager by day but a surly bastard on the ice on Monday nights. He always seems to come out of the pack with the puck on his stick, by hook or by crook. If you’re in position to receive a pass, he will put it on your stick; if not, he might just skate the puck in and get it past the opposing goalie through sheer force of will. Everybody knows it’s always better to be with Bob than against him.
With the Miller Cup on the line and the adrenaline flowing, I was on my game. Even before the first of the three periods was over, Kelly, The Kid, Mike Sr. and all three cousins, not to mention the rest of the guys on Blue Balls, hated my guts. As a defenseman, it’s my job to clear opponents out of the small area in front of our goalie called “the slot”—indeed, the very spot from which most goals are scored. I use everything God gave me, limited as my gifts may be, to try to emerge the victor in small slot skirmishes and league championships. Officially, there is no body checking in our league, but stuff happens in the heat of the moment; sometimes the refs see it, most times not. If someone is going to take me down, or beat me to the puck, I am going to do everything in my power, and, ideally, within the rules, to take him down with me—even if it means subtly curling my stick around his ankles as I go down or coming up from a fall with all extremities flailing so as to create a barely legal obstruction to the opponent otherwise skating around me with the puck.
While this kind of to and fro is common in hockey, Blue Balls was visibly frustrated with my style of play on this particular night. Two times I squeezed out of a post-whistle fracas while Blue players tried to land punches on me. But the refs working the game vindicated me by not sending me to the penalty box, even though my chippy style had led to lots of idle time there in previous games (talk about a goon!). In the end, we trounced them 8-2. Given the bad blood during the game, I was a little afraid to go through the traditional handshake line—that might be the time one of them tried to “even the score” on an all-too-personal level. But taking the bull by the horns and knowing I was fully padded and backed up by my adrenaline-fueled teammates, I decided to go first through the line and get it over with. A couple of them refused to shake my hand, but everyone else apparently was willing to let bygones be bygones and grunted “good game” as our hands briefly met at center ice.
No one wants to be the recipient of a punch, even if he’s cloaked in padding and a helmet with a face mask. But the fact that one could land on you makes the game of hockey exciting for player and fan alike. It might be this very absence of normal societal civility that keeps me playing the sport today, even though my own National Hockey League dreams fell by the wayside 30 years ago when I failed to snag a spot on my high school’s varsity roster. And while I may be a writer by day, I work hard every Monday night to be the meanest goon on right defense to take the ice at Highland Ice Arena.
While the on-ice play is unquestionably stimulating, I might actually enjoy the locker room chatter even more, as it often takes on a baser tone than when wives or kids are within earshot. On any given Monday, the guys might be teasing a teammate for spending the previous evening in the drunk tank or debating which online gambling site has the biggest payouts or joining in the telling of an off-color joke. Some of the guys aren’t scared to down a Genuine Draft or two before the game, and others might come sailing into the arena fresh from sharing a joint out in the parking lot—usually you hope the stoners are on the other team. It’s the “old man’s” league, after all, and for many of the guys it is their only night of the week away from family responsibilities.
After the game, drinking beer in the locker room or out in the parking lot is a necessity if you care about the respect of your peers. If you don’t take one after three calorie-draining periods out there on the ice, it had better be because you are a recovering alcoholic. I don’t get this kind of peer pressure in my yuppie circles anymore, and I’ve got to admit I would miss it if I didn’t spend my Monday nights at the rink.
Of course, beyond the haze of bravado and beer, and despite the diversity of backgrounds, real friendships do form. Players celebrate each other’s weddings and commiserate over divorces. They help each other out on business deals and golf outings. They share season tickets to the Seahawks and Mariners. And because we are out there on the ice together—it is a little bit like war—we know who’s got our backs and who doesn’t, even after the last whistle is blown.
That might be what made the news we got after a game one night particularly hard. After we schooled Blue Balls in the championship game, I spent a good long while hanging out in the locker room enjoying a beverage and some lively conversation with my Yellow Stream teammates. Then, in walks Smitty with the rosters for the new 12-game spring season, slated to start the following week. I couldn’t believe my ears when he told me I was being sent over to Blue Balls. In what I considered a misguided effort to spread out Yellow Stream’s talent and dismantle the dynasty, Smitty was sending me to the wolves. I would definitely be keeping quiet in the locker room the following week surrounded by Kelly, The Kid and the cousins—if I was man enough to show my face at all.
But how could I not? No one ever said it was going to be easy, but there’s no way I could just walk away from what had become such an important part of my life. While I don’t live for hockey, I would rather not live without it. And, that said, you can be sure to find me at Highland Ice Arena next Monday night, and the Monday after that and the one after that. Long live Yellow Stream, or Blue Balls, or whatever aggregation of goons and shooters I am affiliated with into time immemorial.
Honey, thanks for watching the kids. I’m off to hockey. Don’t wait up.
PLACE ’EM UP
How grownups can get (back) into playing ice hockey in Seattle
While the ice hockey scene here in Seattle is much smaller than in many cities in other parts of the U.S. and throughout Canada, there are several ways for players at any ability level to get in on the action.
The biggest formal league in town is the Greater Seattle Hockey League (GSHL) (206.523.7825; gshockey.com), which spreads some 1,600 local players—each one assessed, ranked and drafted by captains at evaluation sessions—across 100 different teams. Players must register ($30/year) with USA Hockey (usahockey.com), the national amateur hockey association that supplies the basic rules, format and supplemental insurance for rinks, players and referees.
Another option is the Everett-based Cascade Hockey League (cascadehockey.com), which divides its 500-plus players into 29 teams, with weekly games in Everett and Lynnwood.
Elder statesmen—meaning 35(!) and older—should consider joining the Seattle Adult Hockey League (206.526.8006, seattleadulthockeyleague.com), which bills itself as the region’s premier senior amateur ice hockey league. It offers a 35-and-older division with 90 skaters and a 50-and-older division with 25 skaters, both with weekly games in Shoreline.
The Seattle Women's Hockey Club (swhc.org), established in 1997, has 50-plus members and fields four teams that play weekly in Kirkland from October to March.
Five rinks in the Seattle metropolitan area provide all of the ice time for local hockey teams, and even run leagues and pickup games of their own, not to mention public skating and stick-and-puck practice sessions. For details, call each one or explore their websites for more details.
Comcast Community Ice Rink
2000 Hewitt Ave.
Highland Ice Arena
18005 Aurora Ave. N
Kingsgate Ice Arena
14326 124th Ave. NE
Lynnwood Ice Center
19803 68th Ave. W
22202 70th Ave W