It’s 10 o’clock on a cold and rainy autumn night, and still they arrive.
They gather in cramped cinderblock cells to suit up in familiar armor as they prepare for the nightly challenge. One by one they emerge and step onto a frozen expanse. Three inches taller than when they arrived, they balance on narrow pieces of sharpened steel as they fly around the glassy sheet.
As the whistle sounds and bedlam ensues, it’s quickly evident that this isn’t your typical Friday afternoon softball game. This is serious fun, and these competitors take it very seriously.
They are fast and strong as they move with an abundance of energy and a lack of fear. These are not professionals, and certainly not kids. They are adult hockey players who are here for the love of the game.
Among them is 25-year-old Jake Drengwitz, who lives and breathes hockey. He is a full-time player on one adult team and stands ready to serve as a substitute with several others.
“It’s not unusual to see me at the rink every day of the week,” he admits. “I enjoy the sport and love the game itself. It’s a chance to be a part of a team, and it’s great exercise. I will play hockey at any time.”
These sentiments beg the question, what drives a person to show up at an ice rink late at night, in freezing temperatures, to play such a rigorous sport after a long day at work? Or family commitments? Or a full college course load?
According to USA Hockey, adult hockey membership has soared to new heights as the program continues to attract former youth players back into the game, and welcomes newcomers for the first time. Membership during the 2011-12 season reached 155,756, a 4.05 percent increase over the previous year.
Are they supremely dedicated, or just plain nuts? Just ask Andy Banks, who plays adult league ice hockey at The Garden’s Ice House in Laurel, Md., which ranks eighth in registration out of 630 adult hockey leagues in the country.
“Hockey has always been a part of my life,” the 21-year-old University of Maryland student says while taking a break from his kinesiology studies. “It’s fast paced and exciting. There is nothing like scoring a goal.”
Despite his busy academic curriculum, Banks shows up no matter what day of the week or the time of day his local league schedule dictates.
“The adult games are held late at night to provide the earlier ice times for youth hockey, figure skating and public skates,” he says pointing out a simple fact of life for adult league players.
He is joined in the locker room and on the ice by doctors, lawyers, computer analysts, police officers and college students. The majority are men, but there is a growing n
umber of women getting in on the fun.
Among them is Melissa Mumma, a 37-year-old assistant to the registrar at a local community college, who plays on two adult teams—a women’s team and a co-ed team with her husband, Greg. Her 8-year-old daughter also plays youth hockey.
When it comes to her commitment to the game, Mumma is in for a penny, in for a pound. She serves as the commissioner for the adult hockey league at The Garden’s Ice House and often works as a scorekeeper during adult games. The rink is her home away from home. With a background in figure skating and encouragement from husband Greg, she started playing ice hockey at the age of 28.
Statistically, there are far fewer women than men in adult league ice hockey, and her comments reflect the importance of hockey in her life.
“I love watching my husband play and being a ‘hockey mom,’” she says, “but I wouldn’t be content to just be on the sidelines now.”
She is devoted to her women’s adult league teammates.
“I play for the friendships and the bonds I’ve created playing hockey. It’s a sisterhood.”
It’s a passion that spans the gender gap. Mike Dunlap, a 41-year-old computer engineer, husband and father of two, picked up the game at the age of 33 and has never looked back. He currently plays on two adult league teams, and serves as captain of one of them.
“I have always been a fan of the game,” he says. “I read an article in the Washington Post about adult league ice hockey and decided to give it a try. It’s more fun than any other sport.”
Fred Hoover, a 41-year-old construction worker and father of two, couldn’t agree more. He is the patriarch of a typical hockey family, with a son and daughter playing youth hockey.
“Hockey is a great sport,” he says. “It is exciting and really challenging. It gives me a sense of belonging to a group — a chance to hang out with the guys.”
In hockey, Hoover finds the perfect outlet for the stresses of his daily life.
“And it gives me a chance to work out some of my aggression.”
The action on this particular night is not much different than any other adult game. The puck drops at 10:10 p.m., and despite the lopsided nature of this contest, both teams battle to the end.
They continue to shoot and dive in front of shots until the very last minute of a 5-0 contest. As with most hard-fought battles, there is pushing and shoving, and the occasional cross check. Still, the anger eventually gives way to laughter and smiles as players shake hands and retreat to their respective locker rooms.
By the time they remove their sweaty, odorous gear and shove it into their hockey bags, grab their sticks and make their way back into the cold, the clock is close to striking midnight. The alarm clock will toll in the not-too-distant future, and they will return to their day jobs and night classes, corporate offices and college campuses.
Tomorrow is another day and another chance to venture out on a cold winter’s night, gather with kindred spirits who share a love of the game, and leave it all out on the ice.
That’s dedication. That’s adult hockey.