January 26, 2007

Beer Leagues Rule

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Every kid wants to play in the NHL.

But 99 out of 100 kids will wind up playing adult hockey in the Beer Leagues.

They call them the Beer Leagues for a reason. The locker rooms are a disaster. Beer cans and broken champagne bottles mix with stick tape and bloody towels.

If you win, you celebrate by drinking beer. If you lose, you drown your sorrows with beer. For some players, the beer after the game is merely a continuation of a process that began well before the puck first dropped.

Without beer, an adult league might be taken seriously. When you call it a Beer League, you give it not only tradition but also a statement of purpose.

All manner of characters show up for the games. A new guy will claim he played in the Finnish Elite League, but talk like he’s from Minnesota and play like he’s from Missouri. An old guy in the corner will mutter about old age and treachery beating youth and skill every time.

The guy you thought looked like a serial killer actually runs the body shop around the corner. The team drunk adds a distinctive aroma not only to the locker room but also to the bench.

And this is a game for everybody. Division I college players will play in the

Beer Leagues in the summer. In Los Angeles, the rosters list celebrity B-listers like Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Priestley and — before he got sick — Michael J. Fox.

But there is no glamour in the Beer Leagues. The locker rooms are cold and the ice is soft. Players come and go like hockey drifters.

Seventeen thousand people will not chant your name when you score a goal. In fact, if there are 17 fans at a game, it is a big night.

In Ithaca, the local rink is half outdoors and steams up during games. By the second period, the fog is often so thick not even Dustin Brown – Ithaca’s lone NHLer — could keep track of the puck.

Yet the Beer Leagues retain their charm — even at a time when hockey interest is not at an all-time high.

Talk show guru Jim Rome asked last week if the NHL is still relevant. To some, it belongs between billiards and pro bowling. The NHL All-Star Game was played on Wednesday night and it may or may not have been televised. Fringe fans are flocking to their new fetish of David Beckham and Major League Soccer.

But the Beer Leagues go on — complete with fights, injuries, playoffs, even parking lot brawls. There is no age limit and the old-timers want to be buried at center ice. This is the place for passion and poetry and — on a good night — euphoria.

In the book Midnight Hockey, Bill Gaston describes the “artificial permanent adolescence of the beer league world,” a wonderful world where men will always be boys.

Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Senior Editor. The Ultimate Trip will appear every other Friday this semester.