BY ERIC SKOGLUND
I saw the kindness of middle school boys make a grandmother cry. It happened on a hockey rink, at a pickup game at Hiawatha School Park a few hours before the Cincinnati Bengals would win a football game and advance to the Super Bowl.
Pickup hockey is different from organized hockey; a pickup game in any sport happens when the game is played with the players who just happen to be there. There are pickup hockey games happening all across Minnesota.
If you drive by Matthews, Sibley, Longfellow, Hiawatha or any of the Minneapolis parks and you see people playing hockey who are not in uniforms, in all likelihood it’s a pickup game.The game occurs because those people decided to have a friendly game of hockey. I know this firsthand.
Prior to a game, a few hockey players show up and toss a puck around, take a couple of shots, get the legs moving, stretch the back, check out the ice conditions. “How’s the ice?” people ask. “It’s crunchy in the corners, rough behind the nets, otherwise not too bad.” Mostly people are waiting and hoping others show up so a game can get started.
In early winter, spots on Minnehaha Creek freeze first, then Lake Nokomis, then brave or dumb hockey players test the ice and start playing games, using boots or tennis shoes as goals. By December word starts to spread that the ice is nearly ready, boards are up, nets are out. This year Sibley Park had hockey-ready ice first, so I headed over. Sure enough, some guys, several of them pretty talented players, were playing hockey … and the beauty of a pickup game is if players are needed, everyone gets an invite. So I was in – better yet, a couple of guys who remembered me from last year said hello.
How can a person play pickup hockey? Simply put – manners, etiquette, need. That’s right, the sport of fighting and broken teeth has a beautiful friendly side – inclusivity.
Yes, the sport of wealthy suburban boys and girls has a variety of players showing up at the parks. Some players represent “woke” inclusivity, but the inclusiveness I’m thinking about is the inclusiveness of abilities, such as inexperienced hockey players and very good players, awkward 40-year-old men in bicycle helmets and slick teenagers with $500 skates. The rink belongs to those who show up and this ethos allows for young and old alike to play together.
My friend Paul and I were out for a skate hoping for a game and we ended up in a pickup game at Lake Hiawatha Park with some retirees – retired from the traditional workforce, that is, not from hockey. They used an email list to announce when and where they were going to play. They invited us to play, and we decided on boys against girls. We didn’t have enough players for a full-ice game, so we played cross-ice instead. That is another feature of the pickup game – adaptability. The group takes suggestions and confers. We went with cross-ice, boys vs. girls.
Back to the inclusiveness of the skill level – here’s the thing: in pickup hockey, good players realize there is no challenge in taking the puck away from a kid, a beginner, a retiree. So they become playmakers. The more experienced players get the puck, carry it toward the goal and then pass it off to a younger sibling or an adult. Sure, the good players go hard at one another when they recognize the challenge. You might see two 23-year-old former high school players challenging each other from end to end, for a bit … but fatigue sets in and they realize the bumpy outdoor ice with chicken wire at each end to keep the pucks from flying off of the rink belongs to everyone. Mind you, when a better player passes a puck to a less skilled player it is never out of pity – everyone on the ice had their own first experience playing hockey, their own first goal, their own first pass from an older or more impressive player. It feels good, at any age, making a pass or catching a pass. I guess it is the beauty of teamwork.
Recently my friend Keith brought his grandson to see some of us play hockey at Hiawatha School Park. Keith and his grandson Levi had never played hockey together before. Levi, 4½ years old, was probably more eager and less nervous than Grandpa. Mom and Grandma stood in the snow along the boards and watched and took photos as kids, adults and neighbors gathered on the rink to play some hockey.
Chico, a neighbor I’d met the day before, now a new hockey buddy, and I were the oldest. We loosely organized the start of the game by sorting out some teams. As an add-on I told Chico that Keith and Levi wanted to play. “Of course,” he said. Chico was on the other team and jumped in net to play goalie. Keith and Levi were on my team. I told them to go down in front of the net (something not allowed in regulation hockey) and we would get the puck on Levi’s stick. We skated back and forth and end to end. Then from our end of the rink we sent a pass to Grandpa who passed the puck to Levi. So Grandpa and grandson, in their first hockey game, were now at the mouth of the goal with the puck. A couple of seventh graders on the other team raced toward them and then slowed down, quickly understanding what was about to happen. Chico, the other team’s goalie, skated toward Levi, the youngest kid on the ice. Chico, like a good goalie, squared up preparing to make the save, but Levi slid it past him into the net. GOAL!
Grandma saw the boys slow for Levi and I heard her say, “These boys are so sweet, it makes me cry.”
Of course, I’ve seen some pretty poor behavior too. I’ve even been the target of it, in fact, but not very often. No, mostly we divide into teams and play for fun and only a few little kids keep score.