Playing hockey for a living offers some perks recreational players aren't afforded – namely, free gear. My senior year of college included 38 games and two dozen Nike/Bauer Vapor XXX sticks, which at the time retailed for just less than the cost of a human baby on the black market.
Along with the sticks, I got two new pairs of custom Bauer skates to account for That-Thing-That-Cannot-Be-Explained on my heels. It’s a good deal.
Junior, college and pro hockey allowed me to be the best buddy a rec player could have, enabling my closest friends to pilfer what they could from the pseudo sports store I assembled in my garage.
I understand the benefits of pro hockey. We play a game for a living. We travel with a group of like-minded males in a similar age group and, occasionally, fans love us. We even travel in suits – girls tend to notice that. (Easy, Bri, easy now...)
At the same time, "playing" changes to “working” when you start earning that paycheck. Out of every 20-man lineup, there are probably four guys "playing hockey" and 16 others working. If you aren't Sidney Crosby or one of the other ridiculously talented players, you better get that puck in deep when you're over the red line; you better block that shot; you better win that D-zone faceoff.
So when the coach isn't on the ice and the players get to have a shinny game, it looks like someone threw a tennis ball into a Golden Retriever convention. It’s every man for himself, because in reality, the mid-play thoughts of a professional hockey player are usually a jumbled potpourri of:
Coach: "Get it deep or get undressed!"
Teammates: "You didn't see me open there?"
Teammate’s father: "If you have an open shot, take it."
European teammate: "It's OK to stickhandle."
You: "Yeah, it's probably OK to stickhandle.”
Any given play can end in: “Why didn't you pass/shoot/make a play/pack your bag yet? You're cut.”
Rec hockey was something I dreamed about as I worked my way through the Mike Vandekamp school of junior hockey, which I should add was extremely effective. I dare you to come to one of Vandy’s practices without having met your quota of bodychecks in the previous game, or to show up on video turning the puck over at the blueline.
I had a funny relationship with Vandy, but we had a mutual agreement. He would let me smile and laugh, provided I never screwed up and hit everything that moved, or else he'd get to kill me and sell my organs for profit.
It's a well-known fact that under-talented teams can be successful with a stingy defense and most coaches believe their team to be under-talented. So you better be able to play defense.
Though I don't disagree with the logic from a coaching standpoint, there's no doubt North Americans have the creativity beaten out of them where many of the Euros don't. So here we sit, watching the rec-leaguers toe-drag, stretch for breakaway passes and try multiple passes on a two-on-one.
I can’t walk past a rec league game without ending up nose-against-the-glass like a kid looking for Santa, fantasizing about what spin-o-ramas must feel like and generally noting the legacy of Denis Savard was just offended by some guy’s weak-ankled sow-cow.
To play the game like this, to play because the game is truly great, is to honor the roots of hockey. Fakes, creativity and trickery were sacrificed to the Gods of positional play and hard work in North America’s recent past and we’re just now waking to the realities of the super-skilled NHL. I bet most rec players couldn't tell me where they should be in a left wing lock and I’m confident none of them lived a less satisfying life because of it.
I'm going to join a rec league and play center because faceoffs look like fun. Only, I'm going to completely neglect my duties in the defensive zone. I'm going to use "center" as a synonym for "rover" and cruise around until I get the puck, then I'm going to attack on a one-on-three and not shoot until I skate it into the net. My official stat line will read three goals and four assists for seven points, because nobody is there to let me know the rest of it reads: 11 shifts for 33:01 of ice time, with 15 turnovers and a minus-9 rating.
I could go home with a smile on my face after that. Especially after I drink a couple quick beers in the dressing room. Now that’s hockey.
Justin Bourne plays for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four cups with the Islanders. He will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com.