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Hockey Fri Dec 13 2013

A Certain Kind of Crazy: the Chicago Outdoor Hockey League

COHL.png There's something to be said about hockey players and what it takes to fly around on the ice with minimal padding, all while slapping at a puck with a stick. Actually, there are quite a few things that can be said but there's only so much room in this space.

The bottom line is that it takes a certain kind of crazy to strap on a pair of skates, and a special talent level to do it successfully -- and that's just on a rat-league level, not AHL or even NHL skill levels. So, when one covers the Blackhawks for a certain hyper-local content website, the obvious thing to do is join a local hockey league in order to put oneself into the mind of a hockey player. Like I said, a certain kind of crazy.

The Chicago Outdoor Hockey League is a co-ed, 18-and-over outdoor hockey league, now entering its third season. Each of the seven outdoor rinks in the Chicago and outlying areas sport four divisions based off of skill set, from the elite in Level A to beginners in Level D. No fighting is allowed and checking is kept at a minimum. Basically, everyone is out there having fun, channeling their inner Kaner and doing their best to make it back home to their families in one piece.

It had been years since I last laced 'em up and hit the frozen pond in Northwest Indiana, so needless to say, Level D was the only option. Some of my friends back in the day were very good at hockey, and I proved serviceable at times, using a warped wooden driver for a poke check in the defensive zone. So, knowing my eventual role on team Sabercats, it was time for a trip to Play It Again Sports to purchase some gear.

Games in the league occur throughout the week and are all outdoors, "The Way It Was Meant to Be Played" as the league's motto goes. Each division has at least an eight-game schedule with at least a one-game playoff, and each player gets two jerseys (one white, one team color) and a ski cap that sports the league and Blackhawks logos. If anything, I knew I'd at least look the part.

Once we all met as teammates at the Warren Park location on north Western Avenue, it was time to get changed and hit the ice. And that's what literally happened: as soon as I jumped onto the ice, I hit it by falling flat on my face. I wanted to break the ice with my new teammates, but not like this. The good news was that I at least got practice in knowing how to fall.

With an average of about eight to 10 people per team, there was no shortage of getting any ice time, which meant no time to think about whether you're better on offense or defense. There's also a little thing called the blue line, which if a player crosses in their offensive zone before the puck, they are deemed offsides. It's amazing how much you'll yell at your television out of frustration when a professional does this, but it's equally as amazing how often you'll forget about this rule while actually playing in a game.

There are two halves of 22 minutes that continuously run throughout the game, no icing or penalty shots for any penalties that occur. There are two officials, donning the zebra stripes, and a stats page on the league site for teams and individuals. You probably could start your own fantasy outdoor hockey league-league if you were so inclined.

After our first game came to an end, we found ourselves deadlocked at one goal apiece and having gained one point in the standings. Gasping for breath, but not completely exhausted, we made our way off the rink to make room for an all-women's league game that was about to take place.

As we all got back into our street clothes (yes, it is co-ed, but the most skin you'll see is a bare set of legs) I couldn't help but notice that everyone in the room had a sense of pride, especially between the two goalies, even though the game ended in a tie. There seemed to be a fraternal bond going on between everyone as we wound down and wiped the sweat from out hair and helmets.

Used gear, some tattered, had logged many hours on the ice over the years. Many of the shin pads and chest protectors worn by the other players reflected seasons of glory, soaked in whatever alcoholic beverage was available (probably Old Style or Budweiser), while also collecting ice shavings and occasional stains of blood in seasons of woe. Most of the veterans told opening night stories from years' past in other leagues and made light of whiffing on a great one-time pass from the corner.

There might have been a big difference in skill level between myself and my teammates/opponents in the D level, but everyone was on the same page when it came to getting each other's backs on the ice and to lend support off of it. No one there is going to make it to the big show, and I don't think anyone wants to.

In retrospect, it truly is amazing to think about how fast and accurate a Jonathan Toews or a Duncan Keith actually are on the ice. These guys are flying around at great speeds and then cutting on a dime, all to make a crazy pass up the ice or sweet move on the goalie. If anything, playing in this league will offer a far greater appreciation for watching and covering the Blackhawks and, more importantly, finding a way to always get back up after falling down.

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