Beer League Chronicle: In Search of a Goal, Week 1

Hockey fans are not like other fans. Sure, some people are passionate about football, basketball, and baseball, but they’re individuals who love a sport. Hockey fans are a tribe. A rabid, opinionated tribe, but a tribe.

We argue about our teams, about the intent behind a certain hit, about the draft, the trade deadline, and free agency. But at the end of the day, we’re like a family. Because once you fall into the well of hockey fandom, that’s where you land, in the lap of a high-functioning yet fully dysfunctional family.

The author and his sons at an Avalanche playoff game.
Avalanche playoff game with my sons, 2019

We’re so fanatical, that a lot of us take to the ice and play hockey ourselves. Some have been skating since they were kids, and others, like me, started later in life. More than half a million people registered as players with USA Hockey last year (if you play ice hockey at any level, it’s very likely you had to purchase a USA Hockey number before stepping on the ice). Okay, that pales in comparison to other sports. Basketball, for instance, has 15 million casual players, and more than four million people in registered leagues. But basketball is easy. You only need a ball, a court (made of wood or asphalt, and not cooled to below freezing), and a hoop. Hockey, with its gear and ice time, takes a whole different level of commitment.

Len Learns to Skate, Sort Of

Maybe that’s why I didn’t start playing until I was in my early 50s. Hell, I didn’t even start skating until then. It began with my younger son, who was seven at the time.

“Dad, I think I want to play hockey.”

“Great! Let’s go ice skating and see how we do.”

I could barely make it once around the rink without hugging the wall, and my son couldn’t even do that. As we Frankenstein-stepped our way across the ice, holding hands, a teenage girl, skating backwards, plowed into us. I went down hard and broke my wrist. So began my illustrious career on skates.

Knowing my son would need more help than my wife and I could provide to realize his dream of playing hockey, we enrolled him in group skating lessons. I watched his lessons, taking to the ice with him after each one, trying to learn what he learned. In a few weeks’ time, we were both skating. Sort of. I could almost skate backwards, and if I thought about it really, hard, I could transition from forwards to backwards, though only in one direction. Believing the perfect is the enemy of the good, I signed us both up for Learn to Play (LTP) Hockey classes at our local rink. The ice was divided into thirds; beginner kids on one end, intermediate kids in the middle, and adults at the far end.

Let me pause here and make something painfully clear. I’m a writer (beyond this column, I have five published novels for young adults to my credit) and a musician (my pop-punk band in the mid-1980s had an album and two 45 RPM singles), but I am not, nor have I ever been, an athlete.

When I was 8 years old, I played little league basketball and was a complete liability to my team (this will be a recurring theme). I could do nothing right. The one time I found myself with the ball on a breakaway (it had to be an accident) and actually sunk a lay-up, it was in the wrong basket. True story, and the start of a pattern that has plagued me throughout my life. Okay, back to the Learn to Play Hockey classes.

A Beer League Team is Born

Blucifer's Devils
Blucifer’s Devils

My son progressed much faster on skates than I did, and he joined our local youth hockey club (the Foothill Flyers) as a U8 (players 8 years old and younger). As many of the other adults in the LTP class were also hockey parents from the Flyers program, we became friends. Seeing our kids inspired us, and we decided to form a team and join the rink’s co-ed adult league, more colloquially known as the Beer League.

Even though I was the worst skater and stick-handler in the class, because I was willing to fill out the paperwork and communicate with the league, I was named team captain. We needed a name, and Blucifer’s Devils was born. If you’ve ever been to Denver and driven out of the airport, especially at night, you’ve likely seen the giant sculpture of the blue horse with demonic, red-glowing eyes. If you have, you have seen Blucifer. The statue is thought to be cursed, as the sculptor was killed when a piece broke off and fell on him. It seemed like a good idea for a team name at the time.

Blucifer’s Devils’ inaugural season was in 2019. The short summer season was only 10 games long with one guaranteed, single-elimination playoff game. We went 0-11, losing our lone playoff game 11-0. And that might have been our best effort.

Related: 5 Tips to Be Your Beer League Best

Then, in the fall, during the much longer 20-game season, a strange thing happened. The team started to improve. We lost our first 10 games, but we weren’t getting blown out anymore. When we finally tied a game (losing in a shootout), you would have thought we’d just won the Stanley Cup. And then we started to actually win games. Everyone on the team was getting better. Well, almost everyone. I was still a liability, a plague on ice, a pandemic on skates.

Blucifer’s Devils Win a Cup

Then an actual pandemic shut the season down. There were no playoffs, no final reckoning of which team was best in the spring of 2020. We felt cheated. As a result, it left us with a deepened resolve to play at a higher level when hockey returned.

The league, with severe health restrictions in place, resumed in June of 2020, and lo and behold the B’Devils won the summer championship. By virtue of the “C” on my chest, my team gave me the honor of being the first to hoist the replica Stanley Cup. I’ll admit, it felt good. I had assists in each of our final two playoff games and was starting to feel like a contributor to the team.

The author hoists the replica Stanley Cup after winning his league championship.
Hoisting the cup after winning the championship.

The team played during the 2020-21 fall/winter season, and again in the summer season in 2021. My hockey career took a detour with a torn meniscus in my left knee (after taking an awkward fall during pre-game warm-ups), and I missed the end of that summer season and all of the fall/winter season in 2021-22. I returned for summer 2022, and the team is back now for the 2022-23 fall/winter season.

In all that time, through all those games – by my count I’ve started more than 60 games as the captain of the B’Devils – I haven’t really improved. As friends and teammates have progressed, I’ve been stuck in first gear. What I lack in skill, I compound with a lack of production. I’ve had a few assists, including those sweet tallies in the summer 2020 postseason, but I have never scored a goal. That’s right. I’m starting my fourth year of organized hockey, and I have not scored one single, lousy goal in the Beer League.

I am, here and now, making a vow to score at least one goal this season.

This fall’s edition of the B’Devils began play this past Sunday night. There are only five of us who were there when it all started. Jeff B. (some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent), a stalwart defender; Danny, who started on defense but is now our goalie; Stephen, one of our better skaters and scorers; and Doug, maybe the most tenacious player on the ice, are all OG members of the team. (Both Stephen and Doug took a couple of seasons off, but came back to the club this year.)

Also on the team are Alex and David, two of our best skaters and most prolific scorers, who joined the team after that first summer season (and who I also met in the LTP class); Jeff R., a hard-working former hockey dad and friend (still a dad and still a friend, but his son left the sport to run track and play music); Stan, one of our best players, when his work schedule allows him to get to a game; Chuck, who doesn’t skate a whole lot better than me, but somehow plays hockey a WHOLE LOT better than me; Ernie and Jimmie, both new to the team; and two brothers, John and Arty. Arty joined the team last season, having never played hockey before. When the season started, he seemed a bit lost on the ice, but worked hard and improved every week, until, in the final game of the season, scored his first goal. Yes, our newest player last season scored before I did. I was happy for him. Mostly. (No really, I was. Mostly.)

In Search of a Goal

So, how did we fare in the first game of the new season? Did I finally get that elusive goal? No. To be fair, I was playing defense. I spent so much time watching opposing forwards zip past me that I didn’t have many scoring chances. There was one sweet deflection off my stick, but it went right into the chest of the goalie. Good thing, too, as it was Danny’s chest. Yes, my first goal was almost an own goal. It was 8-year-old basketball all over again. It wouldn’t have really mattered anyway, as we lost the game 7-3.

I’m moving back to offense next week (I’m a left-handed shot who usually plays right wing) so my chances should improve. I’m also playing in an over-50 (O50) league this fall (Thursday mornings), and I’m counting on the extra touch each week to improve my game. (Full disclosure, I have actually scored when subbing in the O50 league, but it’s a novice league, with one ref and penalty shots rather than penalties served, and really, it’s like hockey at three-quarter speed. In other words, it doesn’t count.)

Whether you’re rooting for me (thank you!) or against me (really?), you can read about my exploits in this space as the season progresses. We play Sunday nights, and I will try to post updates by the following Wednesday each week. I’ll also keep posting until I score, or until my editor tells me to stop.