Sunday, February 08, 2009
Intrepid hockey players gather for games under the stars at a los alamos rink
By Glen Rosales
For the Journal
LOS ALAMOS — It's 9:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday and the Zamboni finishes its final run across the ice at a small, evergreen-encircled pond tucked against a steep hillside in Los Alamos Canyon. Foggy breaths ooze from men dressed in hockey gear as they skate onto the ice, their mismatched jerseys providing a cacophony of color.
Here is a black Detroit Red Wing, there is a blue-and-gold Chief. There goes a maroon Orca and here comes Green Bay Packer. The prevailing logo is that of the L.A. Fat Men, in a reversible blue or white.
This Los Alamos County Ice Rink is a frozen field of dreams for a couple of dozen regulars who gather Tuesdays and Sundays for some pick-up hockey.
Games can last past 11 p.m., or until everybody gets too tired or too cold to keep going.
"It dwindles down to five on five with no bench," said 38-year-old John Wohlbier as he takes a break to erase the condensation from the visor of his helmet. "Then four on four. Then it just peters out."
It's a scene right out of "Mystery, Alaska," the movie where the players are on the ice for the game itself. Except the New York Rangers are never going to come calling and nobody's looking to move on to the next level, because there is no next level.
"It's like beer-league hockey," said 48-year-old Scott Havermann. "Everybody knows each other and we just want to have a good time."
Final score? No one really knows for sure. The only thing the scoreboard registers is the time and the temperature. Oh, and on a recent night, the latter hovered between a balmy 15 degrees and a frigid 13.
"The coldest I've played in was 6 degrees," said 45-year-old Mike Foster. "That was pretty unbearable. Tonight, our water bottles will freeze. Your sweat freezes. When it gets super cold, everybody on the bench is standing up because it gets too cold to sit down."
Some of the players actually relish the chilly temperatures.
"Oh good, it's down to 13 degrees," Havermann said. "It's not bad at all. I'm so warm from skating, I can't even imagine playing indoors."
A few years ago, Foster, who is originally from Yuma, Ariz., couldn't have imagined playing at all.
"I didn't start skating until I was 37," he said. "The third time I skated, I played hockey. It's just something new to learn."
He actually took up the sport as an alternative to basketball.
"I found I was getting hurt too much," Foster said. Hockey "just seemed a lot safer. Ironically."
The games are played on an NHL-sized rink built in 1947 and upgraded in 2002 with the addition of refrigeration equipment.
The late-night pickup games, which have been going on for at least 10 years, are played at a gentlemanly pace, void of intentional contact or checks. Some of the nuances of the game, like icing and offsides, are given token respect, but violations are rarely called. When a goal is scored, a defenseman pulls the puck out of the net, patiently waits for the lines to change, then starts the puck back up the other end of the ice.
And spectators, well, not so many. Nary a soul bothered to raise a cheer for the intrepid skaters, most of whom have seen 40 come and go.
"My wife will watch my daughter play," explains 53-year-old Tom Yoshida. "But she won't come out and watch me."
But that's just fine with the players. They're not here to be watched. They want to strap on the skates, burn some energy and have a good time.
Wohlbier, who grew up playing the game in Wisconsin, said he's a newcomer to the group, having picked up the game after a long hiatus.
"It's just a ton of fun," he said. "And it's good exercise. I'm still getting back into the groove, although I don't know if I ever had a groove."
The majority of the players are local and work together at the Los Alamos National Lab. But 60-year-old Joe Oliaro frequently comes up from Santa Fe.
"I like coming up here because it's a good game, a lot of good passing," he said. "Nobody gets pissed off. Everybody's pretty level headed. I guess that's because they're all scientists at the lab."
It's a peaceful setting and provides a perfect stress relief at the end of the day, Havermann said.
"Nothing beats this," he said. "Being under the stars like this. But you do have to be dedicated to do it at 9 o'clock at night when it's 14 degrees."