It is Saturday night. Hockey night, in Canada. Across the country today, more than 700-thousand Canucks between the ages of five, and 86, have spent time lacing up skates, and hitting the ice in pursuit of Canada’s national past-time. Two-hundred and ten of them, are in Hamilton, Ontario, playing in what may arguably be the worst hockey league in the country: The GHL.
It’s not that the Genesis Hockey league is rough, or the ice conditions poor; actually quite the opposite. It’s the quality of play that sets this small beer league apart, from thousands of its counterparts.
The forward can see the puck. It’s lying flat and still, about eight feet from the boards, just inside the blue line. In front of it, there is nothing but open ice, and a goalie. Even from the bench I can see the eyes behind the protective cage that everyone must wear. They are huge, and getting bigger. The forward now hurtles toward the hapless puck, with visions of glory in those enormous eyes.
Carter Henderson is a 26 year old Australian transplant, who’s been in the country for less than three months. He’s decided that since he’s going to emigrate to Canada, then he may as well embrace its national obsession. He’s been on skates less than a dozen times in his life, but has been scrounging used equipment; gloves here, shoulder pads there. Although he did have to buy a few things, he’s managed to put together a full kit just two nights before puck-drop, in the GHL season. One of the last things he bought, was one of the most important: a stick.
As any hockey player will tell you, there is nothing more personal, than your choice of sticks. The variations in length, weight, flex, curve and the lie of the stick ( the angle on which the shaft and blade of the stick come together ) are virtually endless. Change one variable, and the stick that is magic in one pair of hands, becomes a useless brick in the hands of another. Picking a new stick, let alone a first-ever stick, can be a dizzying experience. Luckily, Carter had a grizzled, old GHL veteran to help him along. Me.
Two steps away from the motionless puck, a hundred dollar stick swung by a pair of anxious hands, passes at least four inches above the disc, connecting with nothing but cold air. The uncertain skate blades churning behind those hands, suddenly try to check their forward motion with a startled stutter-step. In the process, one of the blades comes down squarely on the round, black rubber. The glorious offensive rush suddenly turns into an inglorious ass-flop, ending the break-away that wasn’t, with a sprawling spill, and a solid thump against the boards.
” I so wanted the fifty dollar stick to be the one that felt the best,” laments Carter, ” but it wasn’t.”
Instead, after swatting several pucks in the store’s rapid shooting cage, a Bauer Vapor model costing more than twice the price, is anointed. And so, the addiction begins.
The puck, meanwhile, skitters away from its fallen assailant, and is now slowly making its way toward the corner boards to the goalie’s right. For a moment, it sits in isolation, away from the action. But not for long. The loose puck is like a bit of bread, dropped into a fish pond. A school of sweaters in opposing colours swarms the bait, en masse. Someone takes a frantic swing, and the disc is once again free; skipping and rolling its way, to the opposite end of the ice.
You might think it terribly bold to jump into a game that you’ve never played, in equipment you’ve never worn, on ice. You’d be right. But then, try to go as fast as you can on that ice, while daring to balance yourself on two, thin strips of metal, sharpened to a knife’s edge. Some may call you crazy, and they do. But if there’s an easier way to try it than the GHL, I haven’t found it yet.
The entire premise of the league is to let adults take up the game long after their minor hockey days are over. I myself started just before my 50th birthday, having never played organized hockey in my life. Most of those on the ice have some experience either in recreational skating, or on organized teams somewhere in the distant past. But surprisingly, many of those who sign up, like me, or Carter, have never played the game before.
“Completely foreign.”, he says. “We don’t play any winter sports back home.”
Maybe that’s because it’s pretty much endless summer in OZ. The annual mean temperature for the entire nation is about 19° C. There are a total of 21 ice rinks scattered across the country, barely enough to service a good-sized Canadian city. There is a professional league featuring eight teams, populated primarily by ex-pat Canadians, and other cold-clime refugees. Native Australians are few, and far between.
So what is Carter thinking, as he stands in the dressing room with a thousand meter stare in his eyes?
” Honestly I was hoping that no one was taking it seriously enough that they would care that I was terrible.”
There’s a legendary bit of GHL lore involving a guy from the Caribbean who married a Canadian gal. She had limited experience in the game, but liked to watch it. By sharing that love with her husband, he too, became an avid fan. She finally took to the ice in the GHL summer league, and her husband came along to her games to cheer. He also decided to provide coaching advice and tips to her, before, during and after the game.
When the time rolled around for the first game of the fall schedule, he went with her, as usual, to the rink. As she came out of the dressing room, he was waiting in the hallway, where she surprised him with a special gift: a full bag of equipment, and a jersey. Although he had never skated in his life, he was now a registered player in the GHL, and from that moment on, the back-bench coaching stopped.
The forward that was scrambling for that loose puck actually wasn’t “hurtling” down the ice. “Turtling” would be closer to the truth. Almost no one gets hurt crashing into the boards in full gear. No wonder. Forward momentum, in this division, is generally only slightly faster than walking pace.
How bad are the players in this league? Well, they often make five year old Novice players look like Team Canada. The refs have been known to stop an errant pass with their skates and hold it, until a struggling rookie catches up. Last year, the scoring leader in my division took the trophy with a total of 12 goals, in 19 games. I finished eighth in the points race, with a total of 11 points. My own personal best for most goals in a season, is seven. I’ve been playing for nearly ten years.
The fallen forward is now struggling to get back to his feet, and after a couple of moments, an opposing defenceman skates over, and offers a steadying hand. There are a couple of laughs over the missed breakaway, and then it’s back to the serious business of chasing the puck.
The most violent collisions in this non-checking league, occur when two players accidentally slam into one another. Usually it’s due to one of two things; either both are guilty of watching the puck a little too closely, or neither has the skating ability to avoid the other, in time. Quite often, instead of a full collision, you have two players grabbing onto each other in an awkward waltz, and holding on for dear life.
The second leading cause of hard collisions, is the boards. They will often stop a player, when nothing else can. No one is making a living on this brand of hockey, and almost everyone has somewhere to go tomorrow. No one, wants to get hurt.
My proudest moment in the GHL may have come in the first game of last season. From the opening face-off, I grabbed the puck and scored what I believe to be the fastest goal in GHL history, eleven seconds into the game. I still have no idea how the puck ended up in the net — but until proven otherwise, I’m claiming it as the league record.
This season does not start as auspiciously. Although I’ve been riding my bike faithfully, all summer, one sprint up and down the ice just about kills me. Gasping for breath I head to the bench, and realize my intrepid right winger, Carter, has no idea that he’s supposed to change lines too. Luckily, he’s half my age, and ten times more fit. He doesn’t look winded at all. Bastard.
In truth, Carter is doing pretty well out there. He’s only fallen down once. He’s actually aware of where the puck is. And, he’s getting in the way of opposition players trying to make, or catch a pass. ( Speaking of which, for some reason tonight, I couldn’t take a pass if the puck was handed to me. ) The only thing Carter seems to be having trouble with, is the notoriously confusing “off-side” rule.
I’ve tried to explain it a couple of times like this: ‘When we’re going toward their goal, the puck has to cross the blue line first, before you do. If the puck comes out of their zone, past the blue line; you have to come with it.’
But unsurprisingly, it’s the off-side rule for “footie” that he remembers best. As long as there’s at least two defenders between him and the goal, and he’s not actively involved in the play, it’s not off-side.
Of the two rules, the one for hockey is clearly the least confusing. No need to count players, or determine whether you are “actively involved”, or not. Just: puck goes in, you follow. Puck comes out, you follow.
Inevitably, like everyone who has ever played the game, he’s tripped up by the “speed” of the action, and caught in the offside no-man’s-land. Teammates begin a loud chorus; ” Carter! Get out! Get Out! You’re offside!! ” If you were a casual observer, the shouts might sound angry, or harsh. But as he illegally touches the puck, and the whistle blows, no one’s upset. Heck, even professionals go offside. We’ve all been there. I’m thinking that maybe he was so focussed on the puck that he didn’t even hear us shouting but, “no”, he says.
A dozen people shouting at you? That wasn’t a problem. He heard us.
“Oh yeah, yeah. It’s just that I had no idea what ‘out’ meant. Was I supposed to sub out?”
Everyone knows that it’s going to take time for this one to sink in.
Midway through the third, Mike scores to make it 3-1. On the next shift, I am determined to try to keep it going. I battle along the boards with a player or two, and struggling, make my way to the back of the net, thinking about trying a quick wrap around. The goalie is on to me, and is already sliding across to block the attempt. Suddenly, I hear a clear Australian voice” “Here! Ya!”, and look up to see Carter, six feet away and wide open. I shovel the puck to him and he gets a surprisingly good shot away. It’s blocked, but drops in front of me and I try to jam the rebound in between the post, and the goalie’s skate. It doesn’t go, and the play is stopped.
That’s when I look up, slightly amazed. In his first game of hockey, Carter is not only where he should be on the ice, but has enough presence of mind to call for a pass. That’s impressive.
” I just thought that since I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to be, I should probably let someone know that I was there.”, he says with a shrug.
Ok, slightly less impressive, but still good. In my first game the only word I said was “Sorry.”, after I, like Carter, got caught offside. Call for a pass? That’s rich. I was lucky if I was even in the same zone as my teammates.
In the end, no one scores again. We lose 3-1. Nobody cares. We just shake hands at mid-ice, and head for the showers. Carter has not only survived his first game of hockey, he’s actually managed to look like he belongs. Of course, looking like you belong in the GHL, gives you no reason to brag.
I ask him what he felt about that first game.
“It was a bit of a blur, but I thought as we are going up to the bar, Wow this is just so North American, going up and drinking beer, and eating fried food after the game. I’m really getting into the culture. This is good.”
I don’t care that this is possibly the worst adult league in hockey. I don’t care that I feel like Connor McDavid, and look like Aki Berg. I don’t care that the only glory that comes with winning the Championship, is a photograph, and a tiny trophy like the “participation” ones my kids collected in minor hockey.
What I know is that, on Monday, when the sore joints and stiff muscles are kind of back to normal, I am already sad that Saturday is so far away. By Thursday, I am actively thinking of the things I need to do better in the next game. I am not discouraged that “everything”, sums up the list. From the moment I get out of bed on Saturday morning, I am looking at the clock. Doing the math. How many hours to the game? Will we win? Maybe. Will I score? Probably not. But will I enjoy it? Absolutely. I will play this game until I cannot play anymore.
Because of the cold air on my face, and the sweat on my brow. The camaraderie, and generosity of both friend and foe. The clatter of sticks. The sound of my blades. The sensation of flying. The freedom of the experience, when I am striding down the ice, thinking of nothing but the moment. For that one hour of the week, I am a child again, and I haven’t got a care in the world.
( Thank you to jaytrout.com for our featured image. Click the link, to see more! )