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Shut up and play: a guide to pickup hockey
By Richard Bray

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There are probably more than two kinds of pickup ice hockey, but that’s getting into rocket science and we aren’t brain surgeons. For the first kind, outdoor or “pond” hockey, players usually don’t wear protective equipment. For pickup games in an arena, however, especially if goalies turn up, most players wear full equipment. In some rinks, you don’t have to dress full if you don’t want to, but then, you don’t have to drive on the right side of the road, either. You decide.

No matter which game or variation you play, bring your own puck. That’s because, when you get on the ice, players typically ignore people they don’t know and skate around aimlessly, working on their slap shots. So, only pass the puck to skaters you already know. If you can’t avoid eye contact with another player, keep your greeting to a nod, because you aren’t looking to get married, are you? If someone does flip a puck towards you, don’t be rude. It might be mistaken identity, so return the pass on your back-hand and get out of there. You have your own puck, remember?

Getting Started
Sooner or later, somebody’s desire to play hockey out-muscles their need for privacy, but approaching strangers with any proposal is serious business. They’ll certainly be alert for any hint of wedding bells. If you are an extreme extrovert, you might ask another player, “Are we going to play or what?”

Other people will be more comfortable with slapping the ice with their sticks and shouting, “Let’s go!” to nobody in particular. However, the single most popular way of starting a game has the extra advantage of being the most efficient way of choosing up sides. (You could pick teams by appointing captains to select players, but then you’d be playing baseball.) No, in pickup hockey, especially outdoors, you throw sticks.

When someone calls “sticks in” or just tosses a stick in the middle, all the players pile their sticks at center ice. The youngest player present then slides them, in turn, towards each end of the ice, the theory being that there is less chance of stacked teams if the least experienced player divides the pile. Find your stick and and you find your team, with the lowest chance of unwanted personal contact. From then on, aspiring middle management types will usually direct newly arriving players to join what they consider the weaker team.

Picking sides on indoor ice is a little different. Because players in full equipment usually wear sweaters, gifted types bring at least one light and dark sweater. After the usual skating around, someone will suggest playing lights against darks like the idea just occurred to them, and the spare sweaters are handy for evening out the sides.

The Rules
Once these social hurdles have been passed, the game can begin. No, it can’t. What are the rules?

Do you respect the blue line? Big question. In some games, the blue line represents the last fixed moral standard in a crazy world. In other games, players have more respect for Alan Eagleson. Whatever the local rule, yelling “off-side” the first time the other team takes it across is a stroke of comic genius and fresh thinking. Calling it every time is not so swift. What if there really is an offside?

What about scoring? In organized hockey, a goal judge switches on a red light to signal a score. In pickup hockey, everybody is a goal judge, and whether or not a goal was scored is actually important for the flow of the game, because the team that was scored on usually gets to play it out to center ice unopposed. If it is not a goal, the defending team gets just a little more space than the opposing player with the longest arms can reach to start working the puck away from their net.

When you rent ice, don’t waste time in debates about whether some player scored or not. If you have goalies, somebody usually sees whether it went in or not and if that person has a loud voice, other people can be forced to see it, too. Whatever. Shut up and play.

Sans Goalies
Without goalies, you can turn the net around and bank shots in off the boards or leave it and play “posts.” Posts means the shot has to hit either goal post or the cross-bar. Another variation is to hang a hockey sock inside the net, for a target. Another wrinkle is to require a certain number of successful passes inside the blue line before allowing a shot on goal.

This is all pretty straightforward, but unfortunately, arena acoustics are not. And, obviously, communication is difficult anyway. So it is not uncommon for one team to be playing “posts” while the other team is playing “three passes” for a considerable period of time. The misunderstandings can be cleared up. Resentment remains.

Never Say “Sorry”
What about contact in non-contact hockey? For brothers and close cousins, there are no limits to contact except what they can’t possibly explain to their parents or the cops. For everybody else, give back what you get with a little extra on it, right away. This way, any misunderstandings will be settled quickly.

When you do slam into someone with a puck, stick or yourself, never, ever say “Sorry.” If you want to constantly apologize for predictable and inevitable events, get married. Instead, if the person can hear you, say something like, “Are you all right?” or, “Do you know your blood type?”

On outdoor ice, with no boards and high snowbanks, contact is allowed around the edge of the ice, especially when someone is digging in the snow for the puck. Wait until they can almost flip it out, then “bank” them and grab it. Of course, you will probably be banked, too. And the guy who banks you will probably be banked, too. This is a situation where patient, smaller players can sometimes get to handle the puck.

Rules of Passage
Passing makes the game of hockey. If people pass to you, you pass to them. If a player never passes, or only passes to buddies, never pass to him and only pass to your buddies. It takes about four passes for the other team to see what is happening, so count on losing that one.

As far as the big booming slap shot goes, only a real idiot will lift a hard one when nobody is wearing equipment. Even in an equipment game, a wicked slap shot into traffic can anger teammates and opponents alike. That said, in a crowd it can be really hard to make a pass without hopping the puck over a blocking stick or smacking it off the boards. Is that raising? It is? Is it? And when the skates chew up more snow and it gets tougher to move the puck along the ice, you really have to lift it a little or it just sits there. This is an ethical and moral gray zone, with nobody in a black-and-white shirt to say what is right and wrong. Do the right thing. You will know it is the wrong thing if all the players yell at you.

What happens when you get 35 or 82 people who all want to play on the same ice? Indoors, it is easy. One skater comes off the ice and one goes on. Sometimes, forwards will only go out when another forward comes off and defensemen will only replace other defensemen. And very rarely, pickup teams will put out lines. (When lines do get organized, without wasting everyone’s time or annoying a lot of people, the guys who do it should get honorary MBAs on the spot. It is easier to teach kittens algebra than organize lines in a pickup game.)

On outdoor ice, players sometimes toss sticks for three teams, with one going off the ice to wait and play the winner. On cold nights, it is good idea to keep it down to “first team to score two goals stays on,” so the third team doesn’t freeze stiff.

And when somebody says, “Hey, we’re all just here to have fun, the score doesn’t matter,” look at them and say, “Buddy, I didn’t get up at 5:30 in the morning, drive across town, pay 10 bucks, put on 30 pounds of equipment and skate myself sick for an hour so I could practice losing.”

And by the way, my team won.



This first appeared in the 04/1998 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2003, Hockey Player® LLC and Hockey Player Magazine®
Posted: Nov 2, 2002, 17:25
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