Monday, September 19, 2011

The Beer League

Growing up in Colorado I was afforded many opportunities to play sports. My home state is a bastion of outdoor activity, and the weather is generally accommodating, which allows kids the chance to play year-round. For my friends this usually meant playing football in a nearby park, or in a backyard. One of the strange facts about Colorado in the 70's and 80's was the distinct lack of accessible hockey. Kids were interested in it, but it wasn't easy to do, even if Colorado has always been a "sports" state. Allow me to explain before you get on your rickety "Colorado doesn't deserve hockey" soap box.

Ice and snow almost never stick around in Denver for very long, as the cold temperatures don't keep. In fact, I can recall only one time when the local pond froze over long enough for the local parents to shovel it off and get some games going. Most winters Colorado's front range tends to be windy and brown and never quite cold enough. Much of Colorado is not some kind of pristine, white tundra half the year. Those images are almost always shot high in the Rocky Mountains in places like Vail and Steamboat.

Where I grew up in Jefferson County there exists the Jeffco Ice Arena (or Ice Rink, or whatever we called it depending on the day, mostly it was called "Jeffco") where I first learned to skate. It was about a twenty minute drive, and if one was ever involved with a team, this was not a drive that a parent wanted to partake in at 5am, even if Colorado winters tend to be forgiving in comparison to those of the northern "M" and "N" states. Tournaments were either played at a couple locations in Jefferson County, in Boulder, at The University of Denver (an hour drive to the south), in Colorado Springs (a three hour drive to the south) or Vail (a three hour drive west into the mountains) so hockey was a massive inconvenience. Again, kids were interested in it but it wasn't easy to do. It required a lot of dedication, which is why hockey natives of Colorado (and even hockey transplants) tend to be very passionate about the Avalanche. Hockey is a tightly knit community forged in the crucible of having to drive long distances at odd hours.

Lately I've been thinking about this difficulty when confronted with the issues in my current league. The Daejeon-Cheongju Ice Hockey League has existed for about four years in South Korea. It was founded by some friendly Canadian expatriates who got sick of not playing hockey. I've been participating in the league for about a year and a half, and for the most part it has been entertaining, even if playing goaltender in a skilled beer league is never injury free. The good players shoot as hard as anybody.

Recently we lost our ice time in Daejeon (a five minute drive from my apartment) to a bunch of kids due to a lack of players. Attendance had been declining due to terrible recruiting and attrition (people who tired of Korea and left the country to go home) and we only had about five guys who could show up on Friday nights for practice. Combine that with the negative attitude of a certain drunk Korean zamboni driver, and less than tolerant management and we were out. This season we have to play all of our games in neighboring Cheongju, which is a solid 45 minute drive to the north. So it is pretty much the Cheongju Ice Hockey League this season, and maybe permanently. The loss of the Daejeon rink was big and is threatening to kill the league.

I was reminded recently during the drive to play three consecutive games (due to a lack of goaltenders) of the drives I used to take during my 20's up north to Boulder from Westminster to play late night games in the middle of the week (which I also hated), and how my frustration with having to give up some Saturdays now to play a game I love in another town is a bit misplaced, because it is really no different from what I've almost always had to do.

As we were dressing my friend Andrew made a good point before what turned out to be long night of hockey. He mentioned that the league was an opportunity for those of us who loved hockey to still play. It wasn't a pro or semi-pro league, but it was, in every sense, an opportunity.

Sometimes it is easy for me to forget how good it is to play hockey in a country where the sport is seen as a strange anomaly. Perhaps that is something that I should learn from. Nothing is easy in hockey, just like few things are easy outside of the game. Living abroad in a country with a difficult language, where the people don't necessarily like you, and few people can be trusted is not something for the faint hearted. It is a stressful existence that involves periods of loneliness, doubt, and confusion.

For those of us in the Daejeon-Cheongju Ice hockey league, the drama and difficulty of maintaining a league is ultimately something that draws us together. Some players take it too seriously, and others don't take it seriously enough. But in a way hockey takes on a larger role in Korea than it ever did for me in Colorado. It isn't just a game here, it is a way to, in no uncertain terms, maintain my ever waning sanity.

So here's to a new season, however long it lasts.