There is no list affixed to any fence post, no bullet-point memo on someone’s blog, but for 17 years the countless players who drop in for a Mount Pleasant game of ball hockey have established a set of unwritten rules.
The first thing you should know, Rule No. 1, about the East 15th Avenue pick-up game is that all players are welcome but not everyone can play. Keep this in mind when you read Rule No. 19.
That’s because, as Darren Gay explains, these guys are serious about a good game of hockey. This is Rule No. 2: "We’re very open to anyone who wants to come out."
Everyone gets a shot, he said, but their game is not for everyone. "We find with most hockey players, they know if they can keep up with us or not," Gay said. "People usually know if they can handle it or not because it’s pretty intense. There’s a lot of running and there’s tight checking."
Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of players have circled through the roster and stepped into the cement arena, an urban coliseum enclosed by a 10-foot chain-link fence once used for tennis and now cluttered with four basketball nets. In September 1996, Gay organized the first pick-up game for a group of friends after he put up a sign at Black Dog Video, the business he’d just opened on Cambie Street.
They played in gymnasiums, used a tennis ball and both men and women joined in. This brings us to Rule No. 3: there’s only one kind of ball for ball hockey and it’s not the green one you chase with a racquet. "Tennis balls are too bouncy," said long-time player Erwin Schneider. "You can’t control them."
In January when a bare minimum 11 players came out, the game went ahead in –1 C weather with a single sub. Rule No. 4: A frozen ball will crack in half but it smarts when it smacks skin in any temperature. "It hurts when it’s warm, too," said Thomas Sanner.
Rule No. 5: Actual rules. Teams are decided by drawing sticks and everyone packs a light and dark jersey. First team to 10 wins.
"We have an unspoken rule that if it’s 5-0 we have the option to redraw the sticks again," said Gay, "because sometimes it’s not fun to get clobbered but then sometimes it’s fun to do the clobbering.
Women are welcome, this is Rule No. 6, but none have come for years. "One woman was pretty good," said Gay. "She could definitely hold her own."
Rule No. 7: "Lots of people come and go," Gay added. When the casual drop-in game became more competitive pick-up ball hockey, causal players dropped out. Friends tag along and never return. Strangers drop by, then disappear after a game.
Others, like Darrell Barr, are instantly hooked. Rule No. 8 is for him: Canadians are never far from home when there’s hockey. "When I moved out here, it took me about two years to find a game," he said. "I found one three blocks from where I lived in Mount Pleasant."
Barr started at least five leagues in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Germany where he was stationed with the Canadian Air Force as an aircraft technician. "There’s always a game on somewhere," he said.
Rule No. 9: It may be drop-in ball hockey, but players don’t drop-in unannounced. Attendance is organized and monitored online. On rainy days, debate persists until 11 a.m. until the game is finally called or cancelled for 12:30 p.m. Sunday. In the summer, games shift to a weekday evening.
For a while, they implemented a "beersterisks" and designated players brought beer.
Rule No. 10: They play four a side. Instead of skaters, forwards and defenders are "runners." Rule No. 11: the game will not happen if two goaltenders don’t confirm their attendance. Often, they plan to have a back-up goalie. When it comes to ball hockey, theirs is a belt-and-suspenders kind of mindset.
Rule No. 12: Some runners are poor skaters but it doesn’t mean they’ll never take a pass in ball hockey. Gay and Schneider regularly play on ice. Barr coaches his son’s midget house team. John Kurucz, a drummer in the metal rock band Gross Misconduct, played hockey as a teen in Nanaimo.
Keith Larkin, however, has rarely skated in an ice rink. "I couldn’t afford to play hockey," said Larkin, who grew up in Alert Bay and North Burnaby. "We weren’t the richest family. If there were ponds, we’d probably be out playing shinny all the time."
Instead, faded paint marks the back alley of his childhood home. "It’s almost gone now, but you can see where we painted all the lines. I’m a goalie — you can still see my net, my crease."
Rule No. 13: You’re never too old or too young. Gay is 47, Barr just turned 50, Schneider has been playing for "about 1,000 years." (He’s 41.) Still a decade from making the old-timer leagues, these amateur players are athletic and grizzled. One exception is Barr’s 15-year-old son Dante who dropped-in for his first ball hockey game when he was six-months old.
"It was always my dream to play hockey with my son," said Barr.
Rule No. 14: Ball hockey is hard on the body. "I find I’m way more sore after this than playing on ice," said Kurucz. "The fist 10 minutes will be fast-paced and action-packed. Then as soon as the cigarettes kick in… minute 11 will be when the play deteriorates."
Rule No. 15: Equipment is an ad-hoc and ugly assortment of make-do gear sweetened by band t-shirts and bright toques. Players improvise with soccer shin pads and gardening gloves (Schneider wears hockey pads that cover his entire leg from knee to ankle) but no one wears a helmet except the goalies who dress in full gear.
Barr has nearly 20 hockey sticks lined up near his front door because ball hockey takes a toll on his and his son’s gear. The tread wears down on sneakers and shoes fall apart where a shooter’s toe is dragged along the road every time he takes a slap shot.
Schneider wears a mouth guard but seven years ago he was elbowed in the mouth. In his honour, Rule No. 16: Hannibal Lector. He took his bloody face inside to the rec centre, which has since been knocked down at Mount Pleasant Park. "I went inside and grabbed some paper towel and I hockey-taped it on my face. I had a sort of Silence of the Lambs mask and I just kept playing."
He didn’t get stitches. "That’s why it looks like this."
Rule No. 17: Injuries aren’t funny, except when they’re very funny. Like the time the ball flew over the fence toward the playground and nailed a man where he’s most sensitive. "We yelled ‘Heads up!’ He turned around just in time for the ball to one hop and hit him squarely in the crotch," said Gay. "After letting out some sort of guttural ‘Ooof!’ sound, he doubled over and leaned against the fence. It was horrible for him but comedy gold for us."
Rule No. 18. There are no spectators expect for the fathers on the other side of the fence. "We call them the lonely dads," said Kurucz. "They’re with their families but want to be in here with us." After 17 years playing and aging together through the milestones of adulthood, many dedicated players are themselves drawn away from ball hockey to spend the weekend with their families.
Rule No. 19 is named in honour of F. "There is this one guy, his name was F***," said Gay. "Nobody liked him, he was a ball hog, he never passed, he never came back [to defend] and always floated. We talked to him about this but he just never changed. One day we threw the sticks in the pile and my friend Dennis grabbed his stick and just threw it over the fence and said, ‘F*** you’re done.’ He never came back."
Rule No. 20: Lifers like Barr and Gay, who is attending few Sunday games because he’s playing more on ice, both said the same thing in separate interviews: "It makes my week better."
"If you’ve had a hard week," said Barr, "you really look forward to ball hockey."
Added Gay: "It’s a blast. Even when I hang up the shoes and stop playing, I know someone will keep it going."