Why rec, men's, and beer league hockey is one of the greatest pastimes on earth
It starts organically, with a love of the game. But the true joy in beer league hockey, the undeniable draw that pulls hundreds of thousands of adults to the rink at (and until) otherwise unthinkable hours, goes beyond goals and assists and wins and losses.
Friendly chirping and witty banter on the ice extends into the locker room and around a cooler full of ice—and, in places it has not yet been banned, cold beer—providing both a hoothollering escape from the world on the other side of those doors, and, as new teammates inevitably become close friends, a therapeutic place to share life.
But the friendships that form within the webs woven by commonalities inside that dressing room—similar job demands, marital status, kids just starting up with pint-sized hockey sticks of their own—often have a staying power that extends well beyond the rink, the team, and the games, and into everyday life, and often for life.
The creation of that bond from beer league buddy to lifelong friend can be seen in the lineups of every league, from 19 to 80 and everything in between. Teams stay together, and those connections become unbreakable over time, until backstories and inside jokes no longer need explaining.
Best of all, while rink rituals can vary among teams, regions, and demographics, the ability to enjoy them are rarely limited by age, experience, or even skill. Pretty goals and dirty dangles are not prerequisite to good times. Winning and losing does not have to be a factor in fun.
At the end of the day, you don’t have to be particularly good at hockey to be a valued member of a beer league team—that’s the beauty of it.
Cold beer and hot pizza taste the same either way, and it somehow tastes best when consumed amid the stench of a room soaked in sweaty hockey equipment—a room filled with teammates and friends, jokes, pranks, and smiles.
Yes, a love of hockey helps. It’s the starting point that draws wide-eye rookies to a rink for the first time, and keeps greying veterans coming back well past their bedtime to get ice time. But when it comes to beer leagues, the draw runs much deeper. It’s the camaraderie and sense of friendship that keeps us coming back every year.
In an age where it can feel as if lamenting the problems of minor hockey in Canada has become as much a pastime as the game itself thanks to a shortage of ice times, debates over checking, and what to blame for stagnant enrollment numbers across the country, beer leaguers face only one pressing question: “Who’s on cooler duty this week?”
That’s because declining participation is not a problem at the rec hockey level, at least according to the experts.
“Adult rec hockey in Canada has certainly experienced great growth at all ages 19-plus in the past 10 years,” says Reuben Greenspoon, coordinator of partnerships and new business development for CARHA Hockey, which provides resources like insurance and event and league coordination to adult recreational hockey of all levels across Canada.
There’s no way to pin down an exact number of adults playing hockey in Canada because of the long list of leagues and sanctioning bodies, but CARHA claims roughly 200,000 members, and the Adult Safe Hockey League, which partnered with Hockey Canada in 2012, boasts another 80,000. Add in all smaller leagues in towns across the country and some peg the total well over one million players.
While every year brings new players and teams to the entry levels—typically guys over 19 years of age, when there’s no options left in minor hockey—there is less attrition at the other end of the spectrum, with more players in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s still taking part. But the bigger growth may be among beginners of both sexes, says Greenspoon, whose organization runs learn-to-play programs covering everything from how to skate to what equipment to buy.
“We have seen tremendous growth in our women’s programs as well,” he says, “The focus has moved away a bit from the ‘Weekend Warrior’ and more towards health and fitness, which is something we try to heavily promote.”
Not that there isn’t still a place for the weekend warrior in beer league hockey. Jim Notman has been helping adult hockey players find those places for 27 years through his company, Global Sports Vacations, and he, too, has witnessed a lot of growth. It has allowed the former semi-pro player to turn a part-time job into a full-time business.
“I did it part-time for many years, but, in the last 10 or so, it has become full time job,” says Notman, who got started because teams wanted to find warm weather tournaments and he had played in several such places down south. “A lot of teams that liked to go south at end of year—do a final wrap-up tournament after their winter season. It’s a fun thing.”
Notman’s company facilitatesexactly that, focusing on tournaments in fun, warm weather places like Las Vegas, Nashville, Atlantic City, Daytona Beach, Charleston, and Lake Tahoe.
Like CARHA, Notman and Global Sports Vacations has seen more women and beginners taking part, with divisions for both added at the tournaments he works with.
“It just keeps growing,” says Notman, who coordinates trips for teams from Canada, the United States, and even Europe. “I’ve met so many interesting people from all walks of life and they just all love the game and they love to get together. It’s just fun.”