For some aging hockey players, the game they love is only a puck drop away.
Every year on Christmas Eve, Jonathan Keller gathers a group of hockey players, rents out the Shaw Park hockey rink for 90 minutes, and relives the glory days. There are collegiate talents, rec hockey skaters, and even a police officer that simply want to strap on the pads and pick it up for a few periods.
As one guy told me, “I won’t skate for 6 months, and then I can come out here and after a few minutes, I can get it going.” For a lot of guys, it’s a time to cut loose and not worry about the harsher parts of life.
There are around 20 skaters, and teams don white and red jerseys with visors and a handful of pucks to fire around. There are no fancy face-off drops or referees. The players referee themselves, and Keller tries to keep the profanity to a dull roar. In the end, though, Keller will admit that it’s one “ball busting affair”.
There will be blood, as there is with any hockey game, You could pad the walls and bench, and people will bleed. The game wasn’t half finished before a lip was busted and blood sprinkled on the ice and bench. Since hockey players are fitted with brass balls at birth, that bloodied player eventually took out another player on a well timed check and buried a goal minutes later. He smiled as blood thought about re-entering the playing service.
The temperature was perfect at around 40 degrees, but it didn’t take long for former collegiate talent Josh Dortch to raise the temperature on the ice. It’s not enough that he’s built like a brick shithouse and moves around the ice like an offensive lineman on skates. The big right-handed shooting defenseman is a steel wall in the defensive zone, and doesn’t let much in or out. He scored a couple goals and assisted on another. Skating by the bench, Dortch taunted ever so slyly, “Get use to it boys. All fucking day.”: It wasn’t like he was lying.
Keller and Dortch played in the HNA league. In 2008, they represented St. Louis in a B division tournament against other B level teams that won their city’s league. The game took played in Toronto, and Keller and Dortch’s team won. A bunch of St. Louis teams won that year, including the highest A division.
St. Louis Game Time was represented in full with myself reporting on it and Adam Stevens grabbing a stick and taking it to the ice. He put a puck in the net before the end, and later tweeted how this could translate to the strip of ice located off 14th and Clark. “Now put me on a line with Vladi, and I’ll pick up an easy 20g/20a.” Adam can play, and had a few minutes to chat with me on the bench.
Keller was battling a cracked rib, but made several attempts to climb onto the ice and skate with the red team. A twist in the wrong direction or a reach that wasn’t properly negotiated, and Keller was in pain. He didn’t stop trying, and that is the theme behind this event, which was in its sixth year.
Keller talked about what makes him set this thing up every December. “What motivates me to do all of this for free, are the brothers and families who show up. We got a pair of father/son duos this year. That’s really cool.”
There was great moments and plays. Before the game, there was a whiskey toast and coffee poured with donuts at the disposal. There were no protein shakes or wheat grass smoothies with this roughneck assortment of dudes. You don’t need extra care when there is passion on the ice.
Names were thrown around and intensity seeped into the play, but smiles and laughter outweighed the madness. These guys were having fun.
When the final shot was shot on net and the last fleck of ice had been flown through the air, camera phones were whipped out and memories were snapped. For a lot of these guys, this is the best time of year. It may be one of the only times these guys climb on the ice together. Age doesn’t matter. A stick, skates, pads, and a sense of humor is all that is required.
“For 6-8 of us, this is our only big skate each year. Those guys miss the locker room banter, shooting pucks on ice, and chirping at their friends on the ice,” Keller added.
Before the NHL made outdoor hockey sexy, it was a natural state of identity for players to revert back to their childhood and glory days. There’s nothing like being outdoors with a fresh sheet of ice and pucks flying around. You can feel it. Nothing has to be manufactured out there. It’s a natural energy.
Next December, I may climb back out on the ice with Keller and the gang. For the first time since high school, I was behind the bench. That wasn’t enough though. By next December, I want to be out on the ice and skating. That’s what watching these guys play did to me. It made me want to go back and relive that one season where I didn’t give a shit and was a part of a team of rogue misfits who couldn’t care less about tomorrow as long as today was up to standards.
On December 24th, Christmas Eve, Jonathan Keller let 20 or so guys relive something. If you were watching, it was hard not to feel something stirring inside you.