Leagues let older players keep skating for hockey joy
In this "Five Days of Hockey" series, The Detroit News will look at how the game intertwines with family, community and the desire to excel. Monday, Families keep hockey strong for ECHL's Walleye; Tuesday, Girls bonding over thrill on ice that is hockey; Wednesday, Players study for life after college hockey.
Fraser — Partially dressed with the multi-colored equipment and clothing characteristic of hockey players in pickup games, Nick Krol, of Royal Oak, paused for a moment to explain.
It is approaching 9:30 p.m. on a weekday on a bit of a messy winter night along Utica Road, and the tasks of the night are so fraught with physical danger that an instant of carelessness can break a bone, cut a face, scramble a brain — or worse.
And, if you make it off the ice OK, there's always negotiating the roads home.
So, what gives?
A lot of the players are close to 30 and beyond, and their best competitive hockey playing days are behind them, or they would be playing somewhere else.
Why not stay home and watch a game while pedaling a bike or running on a treadmill, and pop out of bed, good as new, bright and early?
Why play in a beer league?
"I played travel, my whole life," Krol said of a boyhood full of organized hockey in the local leagues. "And I just want to keep doing it.
"Stay in shape. Play with the guys.
"It's nice to hang out with all the guys. I still have a good bond with a lot of the guys I used to play with.
"So, it's exciting, it's still fun and I like to stay in shape."
And so far, Krol insists, the injuries have not been too bad.
Not much to talk about, at all, actually.
Well, unless you want to consider that fixing his mouth cost Krol a healthy down payment on an automobile.
"I lost a few teeth, that's about it," Krol said, shrugging, after only significant pressure under questioning caused him to reveal any injury whatsoever.
Hockey players. Beer league. National league. All the same.
"It cost about 5,000 bucks," he said.
"It is what it is," he added.
"Still playin', though, right?"
Pair organize pickup
Thanks in part to Al Zawacky and Steve Ricucci, a lot of guys are still playing hockey.
For the 18-and-up crowd of men, "seniors" as they are known in the lingo of the sport, who are no longer playing at college, juniors, semi-pro and professionally, beer leagues provide organized hockey, at multiple levels of skill.
Think of it as a systematic approach to pickup games, driven by a desire to keep playing a great game and constrained by the need to perfect the competition and schedule ice and the rules of capitalism.
Sometime in the 1990s, tired of the disorganization of pickup games at local rinks, some of the guys playing decided to go into business organizing it.
Zawacky and Ricucci were two of them in at the ground level.
"Before us, rinks organized it," Zawacky said, as he and Ricucci sat in a hockey-paraphernalia-decorated office in the bowels of one of the great, old local hockey institutions in Metro Detroit, Fraser Hockeyland,
"There was always pickup games. I played pickup and so did Steve.
"But the rink-run leagues were just poorly run, and it's because if you're a rink manager, you're focused on facilities, refrigeration, marketing and a whole bunch of things, and seniors are kind of a cast-off.
"It's kind of like, 'OK, that's the last thing I want to worry about.'
"And I got frustrated with that."
Disorganization kills competition.
"It was A teams were playing D teams, it was 15-nothing," Zawacky said. "And there was nobody to complain to.
"So, we decided to try and run it, give it a little more organization, use a little bit more common sense, and everybody's been real receptive to that."
In addition to amenities like scorekeeping, timekeeping, record keeping and organizing along skill levels, there is the existential task of providing the ice, with a priority that it be at least somewhat convenient for the gainfully employed.
"That's us," Ricucci said. "We come in. We purchase the ice from the arenas, and we fill their buildings up and their leagues up and we run them under us.
"The rink gets their money from us. We pay them, and we rent their ice from them."
Michigan Sports Services, the company Zawacky formed to organize beer leagues, with Ricucci later joining him, has been around for 18 years.
In greater Detroit, June 1997 was a good month and year to start a hockey service.
"We started the month the Wings won their first Cup!" Zawacky said with the broad smile of a lifelong Red Wings fan.
"The economy was cooking. The town was never so hyped about hockey, 42 years without winning it. That was just a perfect time to start this.
"We had 100 teams without ever blinking an eye, basically."
Plenty of play
How big are beer leagues? At four locations — Fraser and Mount Clemens in Macomb County and Downriver in Southgate and Trenton — Michigan Sports Enterprises organizes beer leagues that include 195 teams.
"I think if you would take a compass and draw a radius within 15 miles of Fraser, I'd say we'd have maybe 300 beer leagues," Zawacky said.
"It's all 18-and-up.
"We do have leagues occasionally for over 30, over 40, people who want to get away maybe from the younger players.
"I would say the average age in our leagues is maybe the late 20s."
Krol is getting to about the average.
As the account manager for a delivery company readies himself for a game, he is thinking of the team, Team Dynasty, and how to win.
A lot of the fun in a beer league is each guy gets to coach, at least a bit, too.
Krol said he and Team Dynasty have been working out some different line combinations and some other strategies designed to make them more effective on special teams.
"They're really important," he said, echoing a similar assertion Mike Babcock was making about the Red Wings, just hours earlier, in the dressing room down on the riverfront.
"There's so little time, out there. They're 10-minute periods. Any chance you can get, you've got to take it."
Playing trumps drinking
As the game starts, the coaching continues, with almost every guy on the bench analyzing the play and saying what he thinks they ought to be doing to the other guys; or, what the other guys are trying to do with them.
It is all competitive. But the competition is for fun, and quite casual.
It is about the hockey. But it is also social, a weekly meeting place.
So much so, that an observation like, "Their one guy never makes it all the way back on D, Tommy. Do you see that?" can be followed immediately by, "Anyway, so, what'd she say when you told her that?"
And after a goal is celebrated in a traditional way, with all of the proper stick raising, whooping and punctuating obscenity, a longtime friend can crawl wearily over the boards, slump on to the bench and say, huffing and puffing and sauced with more profanity, "Dude, I cannot believe that went in!"
"It was rolling the whole time.
"Did you see that? I couldn't believe it was still on my stick.
Well past 40 or not, hands a bit bothersome from all the games, Kevin Blissett would not miss this for much else in life.
Even when it means a 45-mile round trip from Lennox Township.
Halting the equipment carrying and dressing processes for long enough to allow for a brief distraction, Blissett, 49, says it is still part of the momentum from playing as a boy, in high school at Cranbrook and then in juniors in St. Clair Shores.
"It's just for the fun of it and the exercise and hanging out with the guys."
Any conflicts with his wife over the time?
"No, she loves it!" he said. "She doesn't care.
"It gets me out of the house."
And neither of them have minded his injuries, too much.
"Broke my ankle a couple of years ago," Blissett said. "They let me use a walking boot I had, from a previous injury."
See that. A hockey player.
Blissett did not even need a new walking boot.
By the way, despite the name, he and others say, there really is not all that much drinking, beer or the harder stuff.
Especially on game nights; the late ice times hardly allow it.
Of course, it can be arranged, however.