Soft Mitts, Heavy Hits was a blog that I was incredibly proud of, co-authored by two wonderful friends. While that site is no longer available, I wanted my work from there to be preserved somehow. I will be reposting a few of my 2013 articles here and backdating them so I can revisit them whenever I want!
Matthew Bagnall sits in a vacant locker room at Donnan Arena, the distinct and familiar smell of a hockey rink circulating with the cold, stale air. A herd of young kids parades by, loud and raucous, the practice they’ve just finished having done nothing to curb their energy. They’re full of promise and potential; some of them may even play in the NHL.
It’s a stark contrast.
There’s about half an hour to puck drop. Bagnall is chowing down on a Wendy’s cheeseburger, and is still feeling the effects of last night’s company function. By day, he’s a project accountant with Enbridge. Tonight, though, he’s a defenceman for the Direwolves, a Division 8 team in Edmonton’s Capital City Recreational Hockey League, or CCRHL.
The culture of hockey in Canada is well documented, although that usually refers to the professional ranks of the NHL, or even Major Junior and minor pro. It rarely refers to recreational hockey. Still, the sub-culture of the “beer league” is alive and well.
“I always wanted to play growing up, but I never did,” Bagnall says around mouthfuls. “I’ve never even been a part of a team before.”
Like Bagnall, many of these players didn’t take up hockey until they were in their 20s or 30s. Registration fees and equipment cost about $1,000 per year, per player. There are rarely any fans. Even girlfriends and wives are scarcely seen in the stands at these games.
“I think [my girlfriend] just likes that it gets me out of the house,” Bagnall says.
So what is the appeal? Despite the ratio of cost to reward, the CCRHL alone has 73 registered teams and more than 1,000 players. There are no professional aspirations here, no scouts watching from the stands. There are also far less expensive options for staying in shape—and ones that don’t involve 11 p.m. ice times that can be a 40-minute drive away.
The reasons for playing vary from player to player. Like many others, forward Simon Potrykus—a Polish import who moonlights on defence—points to the social aspect. “It was an excuse to get out of the house,” he says. “I have two kids.”
Potrykus is a commercial painter by day—in fact, he points out that he painted the arena we’re standing in. “I like to mess with the referees, too,” he adds, recounting one of his most infamous stories. “I told one to do the chicken dance.”
Jeremy James, an estimator for the road construction company Carmacks, played as a kid, making it to Bantam-level as a goaltender before switching to football. He’s a forward, now.
“I missed it,” he says. “I’m a competitive guy.”
Competitive or not, the goal—as any minor hockey coach will tell you—is to have fun. But that doesn’t mean the players don’t take it seriously.
The Direwolves take the ice at 7, an early start by their standards. After a short warm up skate, the game is on: Direwolves grey against the clashing purple and green jerseys of tonight’s opponents, the Biohazards. Watching them play, you could never tell that the league standings don’t matter.
James opens the scoring in the first two minutes: it’s a good start for the Direwolves. The first period also includes a few blocked shots, a heated argument with the referee—who happens to be the brother of Direwolves defenceman Ian Clark—and a save off of the goal line. They’re up 2-0 at the break.
Nikki Paskar, girlfriend of Direwolves captain John MacFarlane, is one of two fans sitting in the stands. She’s pleased with their first period effort.
“I come pretty often,” she says. “But I’m usually the only one.”
Perhaps the reason she comes so often is that she hears so much about it. MacFarlane is, to say the least, dedicated.
“He talks about the games all the time. He gets his skates sharpened once a week, and he’s always saying, ‘No, I can’t; I have hockey.’ He hates missing games.”
Maybe his passion is what makes him such a good captain. Either way, MacFarlane is a vital member of the team—he takes almost every faceoff, and scores two goals in the second period, helping to stoke the Direwolves’ lead to 6-0.
“He’s really into it, for sure,” Paskar says.
The Direwolves win this one 6-2. Bagnall is thrilled.
“We kind of let it go in the third period there, but we managed to shut it down and pull out the win. It was a great night for the boys.” He says, mimicking the cliché patterns of a professional player—it mirrors how seriously he takes the games.
During the post-game interview with James, Direwolves defenceman Eric Barker interrupts to ask for an autograph. Barker calls him a superstar and accuses him of being above the team, laughing as James tries to push him away. When he’s gone, James gives a little insight into why this kind of league is so popular.
“That’s why we do it, right there.”
For the glory?
“No,” he says, “for the interactions with the guys.”
“That’s what it’s about, you know? It’s an excuse to hang out with your friends and pretend you’re athletic.”
Bagnall and Potrykus echo the sentiment.
“The best part is being around the guys, for sure. Joking around in the locker room or on the bench, seeing a guy feel accomplished for scoring his first goal,” Bagnall says. “That’s what makes it fun.”
“They’re all good guys, no meatheads,” Potrykus agrees.
There is one dampener on the Direwolves’ celebration. Unfortunately for the image of beer league hockey, a city ordinance forbids the consumption of alcohol in community arenas.
“Officially, anyway,” Bagnall says.
“We might have a few beers in the room after,” he admits. “It’s okay if there isn’t any evidence, right?”
The win counts for two points in the CCRHL standings, vaulting the Direwolves into a tie for second in the division, but in the long run, it won’t mean much. An outsider might say that’s because the standings don’t mean anything at all; the players will say that it’s because the playoffs don’t start until March.
Any of the players on the team will say that winning makes the bruises and the stiff muscles hurt a little less; that it makes getting home at 1 a.m. on a weekday worth it; that it turns thousands of dollars in fees and expenses into money well spent.
But, to a man, they’ll probably still say winning isn’t what they play for.