Ashley Root is a young man who has known suffering. For years he was a fan of the Washington Capitals, which meant that when he went to a hockey game, he could expect to lose. One night in January of 1980 it looked as if the impossible was about to happen. The Caps were playing the Philadelphia Flyers, a team they had never beaten, and they had a lead late in the game. Alas, the proceedings ended in a tie, and Root recalls he "just about threw up."
Reflecting on it afterward, Root began to take a new view of his favorite sport—he got The Idea. "I realized my problem was that I wanted to play, not watch," he says. But in hockey as in most sports, there was no room for the adult who had suddenly developed the athlete's itch. Most amateur leagues cater to fading stars, sandlot junkies or enthusiastic near-pros who have been playing since they were six. If you don't know how to make a free throw, pivot on a double play or shoot on goal, you're out of luck. Don't come around here, buddy.
By way of explaining just what The Idea is, we cut quickly to an apartment in Los Angeles where Root and a friend, Steve Katz, sit at a table covered with paper and telephones. Behind them a bed is blanketed with more paper. Both men have harried looks: hair disheveled, ears raw from too much contact with the receiver, eyes slightly bloodshot. And with good reason. They are trying to evaluate hockey skill over the phone. Typical dialogue goes as follows:
"So you played some when you were 14. For six years? Yes.... O.K., where? Toronto? No, sorry. Thanks for the call."
"You're 23 now? Played six years ago...feel pretty good on skates, do you? Can you skate backward? I see.... That well! No, no. I'm sorry."
"Never played? You ever been on skates?...I see. Twice. Fell a lot? Ahhh. And how do you spell your name, sir? Yes, sir. Practice is Sunday night, 8:15."
This is the headquarters of the National Novice Hockey League, an organization devoted to participation by those who can hardly skate, much less shoot a puck. Root is the league's president; Katz is his national market developer, the man who helps Root continue the league's relentless search for inexperience and ineptness. In the NNHL all mistakes are forgiven, particularly the transgression of inexperience. Salvation lies not in ability but in training and enthusiasm. It's assumed you are a klutz, so if you turn out to be one, it doesn't matter: You get eight weeks of schooling before you're ever asked to fire a puck at a goalie. So when Root—who gave up a career in audio communications to run the league full time—puts little ads in the Los Angeles Times, the calls come pouring in. A lot of people out there are apparently eager to invest $168 a year in league membership and as much as $350 in equipment and then push themselves through embarrassment and physical discomfort just so they can get out of the bleachers and play.
Since the first six NNHL teams were formed in Washington, D.C. in 1980, the league has grown remarkably: 62 teams of 17 players each now compete weekly in three cities—Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco—and more teams are being formed all the time. By this fall the NNHL expects to have more than 100 teams playing in seven cities.
Los Angeles has the most teams, 27, divided into northern and southern conferences. There are 23 teams in Washington and 12 in San Francisco, and in both of those cities the NNHL operates much as it does in L.A.: New members are given their weeks of skating and game instruction, and then are divided by an administrator into teams that play an eight-game season among themselves. After that come playoffs, summer leagues and then preseason tournaments, so the league is active all year. Play is confined to each team's city thus far, though Root hopes someday to have intercity tournaments.
The yearning to participate seems to be contagious. "I was a musician for seven years," said Alison Wong, lacing up her skates one Sunday night at a rink outside L.A. "Now I'm a hockey player." Wong, a 23-year-old drummer, wore a knee-length sweater, jeans and a small gold ring in one nostril. "I'm one of those people who likes to have a ball, to get rowdy," she said, strutting off toward the ice. "Hockey grabbed me."
"When you get old," said Tom Knox, 53 and a CPA, "you do the things you would like to have done when you were younger."
This was the first practice of 1983. The shopping mall was closed, but the Ice Capades Chalet awaited the neophytes with a sheet of clean ice. "O.K., people," shouted Leon Chaput, the Los Angeles chief instructor. "Spring off there. Spring off there!"
Twenty-nine men and two women pushed off the boards into the unknown. A spring it was not. To be honest, some players were not total neophytes. About 10 had raised their hands timidly when Chaput asked who had played before, and most said they had been on skates at least twice, and all were hockey fans. One non-skater, Mike Butler, 32, tottered around the rink like a ham actor over-extending a death scene, but then most of the others weren't exactly Wayne Gretzkys, either. Wong tripped when she tried to skate backward, and once Knox, who's 6'4", crashed to the ice with such a resounding thump that Root, on the sidelines, winced. Ironically, Root hurt his shoulder in the early days of the NNHL and has never played in a game.
Root stood beside the rink, shivering in the chilly air, conducting a final appraisal. "There, in the striped shirt," he said, his eyes narrowed. Striped Shirt was weaving in and out of traffic, puffed up by his comparative ability. Occasionally he even spun around and cruised along backward. Alas, in the NNHL, skill is the only deadly sin. "Too good," Root said, with righteous sorrow. "I hate to do it, but we'll have to drop him." Backward skating is, in fact, one major giveaway of skill; as soon as someone turns around on the ice that first day and maintains his footing he's a marked man.
By the time practice ended on the first day, the 31 new players had attempted several drills. None as yet had a uniform, so when they all put their hands against the boards to skate in place, it looked as if Chaput was a sadistic drill sergeant who told his motley platoon of inductees to push the rink to Van Nuys. "O.K., people," he shouted. "Let's see you under control."
Eight weeks later that demand seemed less fanciful. Knox, now a Yellowjacket, was as steadily graceful as a crane in flight; Wong, also a Yellowjacket, could turn and skate backward without appearing to trip over a low wire. Butler, a Los Angeles electrician who looks like a middle linebacker and who had been assigned to the Rockets, could stop—most of the time. They were all equipped and uniformed—Root doesn't let anyone out on the ice for games without a helmet and cage—and during warmups they fired pucks at the boards, making the rink sound like a panful of corn beginning to pop. They agitated for a scrimmage, which today's coach, Glenn Jaeger (coaches receive $12 a game), denied them. So they ran drills, hopping sticks, shooting on goal, stopping, turning, skating backward. Jaeger's voice echoed across the rink: "I want that head up when you shoot! I want you to feel that puck on your stick! Let's see a good stop. Let's see some snow fly!"
At the end of practice the players came slowly off the ice, worn out but reluctant to leave. Jaeger looked with satisfaction at their weary forms. "I want them to respect me in the morning," he said. Butler plunked himself down on a bench and grinned. "The first week it was all I could do to crawl into my car," he said. "But now I feel just great."
"They always look hopeless the first week," Root said. "Then, when they start playing, they look good. They always seem so surprised."
After they played a few games, though, the Yellowjackets were no longer startled by their new competence. With a record of 5-1-1, they were positively cocky. Late one Monday night, in the Pasadena Ice Capades rink, they enthusiastically demolished the Pasadena Scouts with fine passing and relentless shots. Lines charged in and out of the game every few minutes—in this league everyone plays—and, after a frustrating first period, the Yellowjackets put the Scouts away. The star of the game was center Perry Saliano, 23, who scored the first goal on a marvelous headlong breakaway that left the puck in the net and Saliano racked up against the boards. Knox, a defenseman now, glided among attacking Scouts, deftly removing them from the puck. Wong, playing defense, charged about on the ice, her dark curls streaming out from under her yellow helmet. Saliano watched with appreciation: "She's a toughie."
The Yellowjacket coach, Tony Silas, 52, a Hungarian refugee who is now a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff, paced around in a sheepskin coat and feathered cowboy hat offering words of inspiration: "Hey guys, the ice is tilted your way!" Late in the game everything started to seem uphill; at every whistle the players drifted toward the bench for relief, like salmon coming home. But with 1:39 left, there was a moment of sheer perfection for coach and athlete. With a massed battle going on to the far right of the Scouts' goal, Silas shouted to anyone, "Get in front of the net!" Chris Kern, 28, a computer salesman and left wing, heeded the call and arrived there just in time to take a pass from a teammate. He flicked the puck home as if he had been doing it all his life.
As the game ended, Saliano asked a teammate whether he'd be around for the "playoffs," in which the Yellowjackets would be competing for the championship and the mythical trophy some have nicknamed the Ashley Cup. The teammate nodded. "I thought you were going to Hawaii," Saliano said. The answer was unequivocal: "I got out of that."
During the game there were only two penalties, both for minor interference. (Referees, like coaches, get $12 a game.) This lack of violence is intentional: In the NNHL there are no slap shots or body checks, and if you fight you're gone. As a result, the league has been virtually injury-free. Asked his secret of success, Root ticked off a solemn list. "We take the conduct issue extremely seriously. We have our financial act together most assuredly. We have color coordination."
All those items were part of an argument between two fans attending the NNHL's Los Angeles North-South All-Star game, played in the vast cavern of the Forum, home of the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings had just beaten the New Jersey Devils 3-0 and most of the fans had left. Two or three hundred remained, some enticed, perhaps, by the announcer's repeated exhortations during the NHL game to stay for "exciting coed hockey, coming right up."
The two gentlemen in question were clearly lifelong hockey fans.
"You mean they can't check?" said one, who wore a Kings cap.
"And you can't take slap shots? If you can't take slap shots it isn't hockey."
At the end of the second period—periods last only 15 minutes—the South was running away with the game, on the way to an eventual 7-2 victory. The man in the cap got up to leave. His friend lagged behind. He carried an NNHL brochure with him. Something about that odd, clumsy, happy game out there had caught him. "Yeah, but...they're having fun."
The brochure advertised the beginning of practice for more teams. The NNHL starts new sessions every couple of months, and down by the edge of the rink Root contemplated the upcoming round of ads, telephone calls, instruction sessions and games. He allowed himself a rare smile. "In two weeks," he said, "there will be 144 hockey players where there were none."