Save the NHL Fan Base: Play Pick-Up Hockey

photo courtesy of borman818 on flickr via creative commons licensing
photo courtesy of borman818 on flickr via creative commons licensing

It’s Tuesday night. The 9-5er’s are on their way home from work and will soon be looking for something more fulfilling to do. The air is crisp. The slight breeze is chilling but not altogether cold and the sky has only a few disparaged clouds to lend a light cover of shade. There should be enough daylight to last well into the evening hours. Sounds like a perfect time to get the boys together and play some hockey.

As Detroit and Pittsburgh wind the Stanley Cup Finals down to a close for the second year in a row I’m already starting to sense the fan base’s inevitable post-season dissolve. The summer months have no games to keep the fans entertained and without the advertising budget of the NFL, MLB or the NBA to boast about draft picks and trades people tend to just forget about the sport all together. Even once the regular season starts up again and the pure bred hockey fans begin to pay more attention, network coverage is slim to none and makes it difficult to follow even the local franchise.

This article is a call for a grass roots campaign that will grow a stronger and more resilient hockey fan base. Too long has this magnificent sport sat in the bleachers while other less exciting sports (cough, baseball, cough) take center stage and all the advertising revenue. It’s time to take back the national sports stage with dedicated fans who know the ins and outs of the game, who teach their children how to play and keep them playing, and most importantly fans that will spread the word about hockey across North America.

The mission is simple: organize pick-up hockey in the local communities wherever it is possible and spread the word about playing there. Pick-up hockey is easy to set up, it has a casual fun-loving atmosphere, it’s relatively inexpensive, and pick-up clubs will ultimately develop interest in the NHL because of the simple fact that the more we play our game the more people will join in and the more they play our game the more they will love our game.

There are a few basic steps necessary to forming a lasting pick-up hockey club. Once the foundation is laid it becomes easier and easier to recruit new members and keep the games going every week without much time commitment. First and foremost it is of course, necessary to find a place to play.

Taping the Stick

photo courtesy of bobolink via flickr creative commons licensing
photo courtesy of bobolink via flickr creative commons licensing

Rink Types

Location, location, location: just as in real estate, finding the proper location is key to establishing a pick-up community. Rinks come in all different shapes and sizes and they all have different surface types. The type of rink you find is going to determine whether your pick-up group should play floor hockey, ice hockey, or roller hockey. The size of the space you have is also going to force some general playing rules upon you and your mates.

Ice:

The ideal set up is a regulation sized ice rink. However, because it is in such high demand it is also incredibly difficult to find. I currently live in Boston but I used to live in South Florida. Florida has two NHL franchises these days, the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. My house was just down the road from the OfficeDepotCenter where the Panthers played but I still found it hard to find an ice rink to play on. Some climates are just going to do that to us hockey fans. There isn’t enough ice to go around.

Demand being so high, the price to play on the ice hockey rinks is usually pretty steep. Most rinks in Florida required that you join the league to play on them and if you weren’t in a league you were looking at about $15 an hour for ice time. In the North it’s a little bit different but even out here living in Boston a regulation well kept ice rink runs about $10 a player for pick-up games.

Not only are rink prices high but good luck to the player who is trying to find time to play on them. In this poor economic climate rink managers are doing everything they can to pay the bills. That means they are renting their rinks out to free skaters, figure skaters, minor league hockey teams, college teams, high school teams, and anyone else willing to shell out the big bucks to play. So even if you do find a decently cheap rink to play on you have to conform to that particular rink’s schedule.

Now, if you’re lucky enough to live in a northern climate where winters mean snow and water freezes starting in October, you can always play on a frozen pond. Pond hockey is the original pick-up surface. It’s here, out on the frozen tundra in the Great White North that the first pioneers of our good ole hockey game strapped razors to their shoes and stepped out onto the ice. Hockey was invented out there on the open ice where banks of snow are boards and trash cans are goals.

The great thing about pond hockey is that it is usually completely free to play. However, if you’re going to play on a pond, you need to be cautious. Frozen ponds are a dangerous place to be skating around on if the temperature isn’t just right. You want to have a really solid layer of ice on top because falling into the frigid water below is risking hypothermia or death. Sadly, because of the nature of the pond rinks, these pristine skating arenas are only available in the heart of the winter months and you have to live pretty far north to make use of them.

Roller:

Personally, I’m a fan of the roller hockey rink. There are a few different types of them but all of them usually share the same basic features. Most roller hockey rinks are outdoors and exposed to the elements. Depending on the budget of the community who put the rink down the playing surface differs in quality and material. The rinks that I prefer to play on are surfaced with a type of smooth concrete that is perfect for inline skates.

Sometimes if the rink is indoors the playing surface will be a type of plastic. The plastic rinks are probably the closest one can get to playing on an actual ice rink but they also share some of ice hockey’s problems. Like ice hockey rinks you will probably have to pay to play on the plastic rinks and sometimes the price is even higher than ice. Generally these rinks are for professional inline roller hockey teams, the advantages of the plastic over the concrete just aren’t enough to pay to play in pick-up games.

The trouble with the concrete outdoor roller hockey rinks is that the weather must be perfect in order to play on them. If it rained heavily within a five hour span of when you want to play, you’re not going to be able to use the rink because the water will not only ruin your skates but it will also make it impossible to grip the playing surface. These rinks are also prone to vandalism. Skate boarders and indoor soccer players love the boards and the smooth surface and the rinks aren’t as well protected as ice rinks and normally don’t have the maintenance funding. Communities will just put up these rinks, take care of them for a few years, and then forget all about them.

Floor:

If you’re unable to find an ice or roller hockey rink to play on fear not, you still have some options. If you are determined to play on skates you could settle for an empty parking lot, street, or asphalted basketball court. If you don’t mind switching to sneakers and playing some floor hockey you could visit the gymnasium and play on the basketball or volleyball courts there. As long as you are willing to adapt to your particular location’s resources you have a ton of options.

photo courtesy of Seattle municipal archives via flickr creative commons licensing
photo courtesy of Seattle municipal archives via flickr creative commons licensing

Choosing Your Skate

Equipment

Once you’ve chosen your playing space you can kind of get a feeling on what sort of equipment you’ll need. The surface determines the game and the game determines the amount of padding you’re going to need and what kind of puck you should use.

If its ice hockey you’ve chosen you’re going to need to invest in a full set of gear. Helmet, shoulder pads, shin and knee guards, gloves, ice skates, padded hockey pants, and elbow pads. That’s if you want to skate around, if you want to play goalie you’ll need even more! Ice hockey tends to be a more physical game. You can expect to get smashed up against the boards, slap shots in the body, and just generally battered and beaten. The pads are necessary. The choice for puck is pretty easy with ice hockey as you can pick up an official NHL hockey puck and get going.

Roller hockey requires less padding but it depends. At the bare minimum you’re going to need to pick up a hockey stick, some hockey gloves, and a nice pair of inline skates. If you play with people who like to get rough rather than stick handle you’ll want to pick up more pads. I usually play with gloves, an elbow pad on my stick hand and occasionally shin guards.

As far as what puck to go with, roller hockey has many options. There are two schools of thought on roller hockey pucks and each of them has many varieties of texture and weight. The debate rages between whether one should use a Puck or a Ball.

Traditionally it is always a good idea to try and match ice hockey standards as much as possible. Therefore a puck is the optimum choice. There are a variety of great roller hockey pucks, usually they are a little bit lighter than an ice hockey up and they have ridges and bumps on them to help keep them flat on the concrete surface. Roller hockey pucks rely heavily on the surface of the rink you’re playing on. The smoother the rinks the better the puck moves but as soon as your rink starts to get grainy or uneven those pucks will never stay flat. That’s a big problem when roller hockey is a game about finesse puck handling and maneuvering.

In comes the ball. The roller hockey ball is an orange hard rubber ball about the size of a tennis ball. They make them now in a spectrum of thicknesses and each thickness is better for a different temperature. For cold weather you want to get a thicker ball. In the cold weather the rubber hardens and develops more bounce so a thicker ball tries to counteract that. As the climate rises the ball should get thinner and some brands even fill the ball with a liquid to keep it steady and on the rink. The bouncier the ball the less reliable it is and just like with the puck, you want to be able to keep it on your stick.

Floor hockey doesn’t need anything other than a stick. It should also be your last resort for playing hockey as it is the farthest removed from the actual game. Hockey without skates on isn’t much like hockey at all. The pace just isn’t the same. Floor hockey players generally just use the hockey balls.

photo courtesy of spcbrass via flickr creative commons licensing
photo courtesy of spcbrass via flickr creative commons licensing

Top 15 Shoot Out Goals

How to play: Rules

The rules, like the equipment, are all dependent on the rink type. However, since we’re talking about pick-up hockey and more than likely we aren’t going to be playing with referees it is a good idea to keep the rules as simple as possible.

Let’s say you have ideal conditions and you’re playing 5 on 5 with two goalies on a regulation rink. That means you have two blue lines and a middle red line. With this many players Off Sides is a must.

Off sides is a rule that prevents players from “cherry picking” or standing by the opposing team’s goalie waiting for a long shot pass to score. Plays like that aren’t interesting at all and they detract from the fun of the game. Basically the rule is this:

Off Sides: a player cannot pass the opposing teams blue line before the puck has.

Icing is a decent rule to think about as well but without referees it can get hard to manage. Basically icing prevents one team from launching the puck across the rink every time it gets close to their goalie. If the team does this while the icing rule is in effect, the play must go back to that team’s end. It’s not complicated but with pick up it can be difficult.

Now let’s say you don’t have any goalies in your teams. This is more common than it should be as goalie equipment tends to be more expensive and it is hard to find players who are not only interested in standing in the net getting shot at but who also have the finances to purchase the necessary padding.

Assuming you have found a rink that has regulation nets there are again two schools of thought on playing without goalies.

Option one requires you to turn the nets down so that the wide open section of the net where the goalie usually protects is sitting on the rink and the tops of the nets face the middle of the ice. This basically turns the gaping chasm of the empty net into a much more manageable size. To score a point using this method you would just have to shoot the puck into the top (now the front) of the netting.

Option two is to play post. You leave the nets as they are and instead of aiming the puck at the gaping hole in the middle to score you must strike one of the three posts along the edges. This is a great option for people playing with a puck because you can get an accurate shot and hear the loud ping as the goal is scored. For those who choose to play with a ball the post option isn’t as valid. It’s much more difficult to direct the ball at a target like the post and even when you hit the mark, it is hard to tell.

Of course, the rules and play styles are completely up to the people playing the game. It’s a good idea to discuss all of the rules prior to starting the game and choose ones that best fit the players you’re with. After all, we’re in it to have fun and stay loose.

photo courtesy of Matt Seppings via flickr creative commons licensing
photo courtesy of Matt Seppings via flickr creative commons licensing

Game On!

Now that you’re all geared up and ready to hit the rink you’ll need to find a good group of players. A decent game of pick-up starts with six players. Three on three utilizes the full court and there are enough players on the rink to get some decent passing plays going. Six players is a great foundation for pick up and if you can find regular guys willing to play three on three once a week you’re in good shape.

It’s a good idea to start with your close friends first. Hopefully you have friends who also enjoy playing hockey because they are going to be your most reliable members at the beginning. If you’re new to the area or your friends play a different sport or don’t play anything at all you’ll need to branch out.

The internet is a great resource for establishing community groups these days. Meetup.com is one site that allows members to create a group, schedule meetings, and see who is coming and who can’t make it. Sportvite is another great resource. Start up a group on a site like those and then start getting the word out there. Post flyers at ice hockey rinks in your area, on community message boards, or just start playing and see who shows up.

The best way to get people playing is to spear head it by playing yourself on a consistent schedule. My pick-up group plays in the same place at the same time on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we have been able to pick-up a lot of new members from the area that way.

Hockey is one of the greatest sports out there and it doesn’t get the credit it should. A premium blend of speed, aggression, finesse, and talent it makes one hell of an exciting pastime but for some reason people aren’t playing it. If more pick-up groups get started eventually more leagues will spring forth. More leagues mean more exposure and more exposure means more funding.

I hope I’ve helped to fuel interest in playing this fantastic sport because once people play they’ll come to understand just how great it all is and hockey will be better for it.

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Comments 5 comments

Derrik 7 years ago

We could not agree with this more! We started organizing 1-3 pick up hockey games a week and found it exhausting. Since then we developed http://www.hockeyfinder.com . This is free tool for organizers to find players, manage their ice times, and for players to find hockey opps.

We are doing our best to keep this free. Anything you can do to help promote is greatly appreciated. We have organizers in NY, Toronto and Minnesota actively using the site and thousands of players registered all over North America.


Hockey Rules 7 years ago

Yes! Well said, mproctor!

Promoting pick up hockey is a great idea! Not only does it help to create a solid fan base, but it's a great way to exercise and have a wonderful time!

How often do we, way up here in the Great White North, have to gladly slow down driving around our neighbourhoods to allow time for the local kids playing street hockey to move over to the side so that we can get by. It doesn't matter which season, boy or girl, young or old, or if it's played with a puck or a ball, on skates or in sneakers, the game is the thing! And each and everyone of those players is thrilled at simply playing and dreams of one day being the next Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby or Cassie Campbell.

We all know that hockey has got to be one of the best, fastest and challenging team sports out there! The more people will learn about it, the more people will love it.


USURHC 6 years ago

It's too bad so many potential hockey players let price get in the way. Hockey doesn't have to be expensive. You can find skates at a secondhand store and borrow a stick from the regulars. Trash bins make perfect goals. I'm glad there are others out there promoting good ole fashion schoolyard puck.


Jon 6 years ago

Hockey is the greatest game in the world. People need to not let expenses get in the way. I get all my equipment at www.hockeygiant.com and I find it reasonable and always great service. Gotta keep this amazing game alive


Dan 5 years ago

Great article!

It's great to see people who share the same passion as us. We need to focus on hockey fans at the entry level. Playing hockey is 100x more enjoyable than watching it.

All you hockey fans that don't know people that play hockey, we want to help. http://www.hockey-community.com

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