• Ken Ilgunas

On Rec Leagues


The other day I asked my wife, “If I could read all your thoughts, would I think of you differently?” We were having a picnic on a Scottish beach, eating bread and cheese during an unseasonably warm March afternoon. I’d been thinking thoughts and analyzing those thoughts, and I couldn’t help but conclude: If she knew what I was thinking, she’d think I’m such a simpleton. I wasn’t thinking smart thoughts about the geology of the sea cliffs, or sentimental thoughts about our family picnic. I was only thinking about hockey: old hockey games, future hockey games, roster lineups, stats… A half a year ago, I’d seen a Facebook ad listed by the Edinburgh Ogres—a ragtag and unfit floor hockey team (the Brits call it “ball hockey”). The Ogres are one of eight teams in the Scottish Conference, part of the broader British BHUK ball hockey league. I joined the team, as did a bunch of new players. I’d played ice and street hockey throughout my youth, so I thought I’d perform well against the Scots, who come from a country that produces no NHL players and whose only noteworthy athletic accomplishment involves throwing heavy rocks and logs. But halfway through my first practice (“training”) I felt outrun by these Scots. I was dizzy and nauseous. I wore old hiking shoes and I constantly slipped and fell. Unsurprisingly, they put me on the third forward line. Between the nausea and wounded pride of being a “third liner,” I had good cause to get in better shape. Imagine a mellower, less-disciplined Rocky workout montage: me running for five minutes along the River Tyne before doubling over gasping for breath; me lifting weights in the garage to a “Where Shall We Begin?” podcast; me stretching to a “Yoga with Adriene” YouTube video. It had been almost five years since I held a hockey stick, and I was a good fifteen years away from my hockey heyday—when I played ice hockey for my high school team. I found that not only had I lost 10 mph from my once fearsome slap shot, but I had no control over the shot’s direction. I’d either trebuchet my shots high over the glass or ricochet them against my teammate’s jaw. On the team’s Facebook chat group, someone nicknamed me “Sniper,” which I originally interpreted as a gesture of acceptance until I realized the moniker was assigned in irony. At our first preseason tournament, despite my jogging and weightlifting, I felt as if I had the cardiovascular system of a sluggish, diabetic Labrador. Even some of the obese guys we played against seemed less gassed than me after a short shift. I wasn’t entirely incompetent, though: I remembered how to pass the ball and where to position myself on the floor. My decades of hockey experience, in this way, gave me an edge. I saw limited action, but I scored two garbage goals and one beauty that I roofed under the crossbar. I was reminded of how I liked to dramatically slide to block shots and to sacrifice my shins in front of my teammates. I enjoyed the grinding ball battles along the boards and coming out victorious. It felt good to get beaten up and to give a little beating. It felt good to get scraped up and to bleed a little. And I had newfound respect for British athleticism. You never have to scream “hustle!” to a Scot because, regardless of his size, he’s always running pell mell across the rink or roughly trying to jostle into position in front of the net. The Scots play with British self-sacrifice, a battleground berserkian intensity. They run into corners as if they’re running down a Highland munro with club in hand, wearing half-painted and full-crazed faces. I asked one teammate what it is about the culture that manufactures such raw athletic intensity. He thought for a moment and said, “We’re Scottish. We need to compensate.” This ungentlemanly spiritedness contrasts with their polite and well-behaved manner in normal life. In my village, everyone nods hello and makes a polite comment about my daughter. Yet on the adjacent soccer ball field, two amateur teams are ferociously battling and heedlessly head-butting balls, as if their country’s independence is at stake. I was the only onlooker. No matter the sport, teammates are constantly screaming and swearing at one another. And no one takes offense. It’s a savage camaraderie—typical here, but rarer in North America, where sports teams are generally taught to be positive and supportive. I will always favor gentlemanly sportsmanship, but I admire this spiritedness. I felt reassured knowing that my daughter won’t be growing up around a bunch of softies. And hockey is not a game for softies. It’s is a primitive game mostly played by primitive people. I’ve always been the quiet, seemingly gentle one in locker rooms, surrounded by a bunch of foul-mouthed apes. I’ve been exposed to almost twenty year’s worth of locker room banter and I’ve never once heard anything that could be construed to be noble, meaningful, or intelligent. In high school, I felt ashamed to be socially associated with my teammates, who’d pee on and laugh at each other in the communal shower after games. A bunch of them casually nicknamed an Italian player (who was good and well liked) the N-word because he had dark skin. I remember how, on my JV team, one older and bigger player bullied the rest of us into reserved submission. On the rink, you took slap shots to the toe and got mauled in the corners. The locker room was little better: full of juvenile cruelty, Mad Max hierarchical posturing, a Darwinian struggle for survival, red in tooth and claw. Some of my first character-defining moments happened in hockey locker rooms. Once, when I was eleven and on a new team, an older player in the locker room sneeringly stared at me, repeating the word “douche.” I pretended not to notice and never looked up. My little brother was lacing up his skates next to me and I later wondered if my faux-ignorance and face-saving(?) pacifism set the right example, or if I should have just coyly walked up to my new teammate and smashed his face. As a young boy, I remember how once, while standing in line in a corner for a drill, one player, from behind, stuck his stick between my legs and sneeringly tapped my cup with the tip of his stick blade. I remember doing nothing. Throughout my adolescence, my survival strategy amounted to keeping my head down in the locker room. After a few weeks, my silence would help me achieve a cloak of invisibility. On the ice, I earned respect for being gritty and relentless. But that wasn’t always enough. Once a fellow teammate on a new team tested me by brazenly hooking his stick around my waist in skating drills, as if I was a mule to do his skating for him. I’d been in these situations often enough to know that inaction was unthinkable. I turned around, holding my stick high, as if wielding a two-handed sword, and half swung it down toward his neck. He winced in fear. The takeaway wisdom from these experiences is that sometimes intimidation must to be met with violence, or the threat of violence. Sometimes the quiet guys (for their unpredictability) can be just as scary as the loud. Sometimes you need to be an ogre. I saw some of this brute masculinity at my first Ogres tournament, in which one of the players, in between games, drank beers until he was drunk by the end of the tournament. At the end of our first game, which we justifiably lost, one of our teammates screamed, “FAGGOT,” at the other team. We constantly blamed our woes on the ref and there were countless and unnecessary skirmishes. I wasn’t exactly sure if I’d return. But I got in better shape and moved from the third line to the second. The drinker left the team, there’ve been no more homophobic epithets, and I’ve gotten to know my team outside of the locker room. On a team trip down to England, I had a heart-to-heart with my teammate Gregor, who was contemplating major life changes. I put my hand on Mark’s shoulder when I expressed sympathy over news of his dog dying. I’ve learned of hardships that have befallen some of our younger players. The Ogres no longer seemed so ogreish. But that’s not to say there’s something wrong with having — or expressing — your inner ogre. That’s one of the great things about a sport like hockey: it gives you a (mostly) safe and (mostly) controlled environment to relieve tension, to exhaust inner demons, to press the release valve and get out a bit of the anger, brutality, and violence that must be carefully bottled in normal life. And then there’s the emotions that these games evoke that you forget you even have. If you fall deeply into a routine-spiral of any sort (for me: nappy changes, meal making, and garden maintenance) you’re liable to lose a few big slices from the emotional pie. After a game, I felt like the snow-covered emotions of nervousness, excitement, and fraternal warmth had been polished to a Zamboni sheen. As a father to a young child, one must abandon old hobbies, old traits, and a bit of your old self. But for a few hours a week, hockey helps to bring out a bit of my old self. Suddenly I have a reason to self-improve, an outlet for my megalomaniacal drive, and a narrative of operatic drama that I could be the center of. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing the Dundee Ducks to a crowd of three spouses; the emotions feel as powerful and real as if we were competing for Olympic gold. Sports isn’t just an opportunity for glory, camaraderie, and physical exhilaration. Sports can be a much-needed reminder of your competence as a human being. Last summer, the captain for my co-ed, slow-pitch softball team (The Haar Hitters) resigned and announced that the team was officially folding. Our captain was gone; our roster was depleted. But I had spare time, so I decided to help salvage the team, taking on the role as captain. My first step was to recruit new players on the American-Edinburgh ex-pat Facebook group, with the hope of finding players with baseball experience. I took advantage of the team's implosion. It was the best thing that could have happened, as I now had carte blanche to aggressively overhaul and upgrade the roster. Over the course of the summer, I designed trainings, obsessed over lineups and batting orders, managed team morale, tried to cultivate team chemistry, and sent flattering emails to good ball players I’d later try to recruit. And I played some pretty good short stop. We went from a dead team to winning the division 10-2, boosting us up to the premier league. In my normal everyday life, I was weighed down by the task of full-time parenting and defeated by a series of career frustrations. Every job application I sent out was rejected. All of my magazine story pitches were turned down. I applied for one of eight seasonal countryside ranger jobs and I was devastated to learn I didn’t get one of them. I’ve been a landscaper and gardener for most of my life, yet I couldn’t even get a landscaping job that I had no trouble getting when I was an inexperienced 17 year old. I’m reminded of a quote from the character, Pam, in “The Office,” in an episode when Jim is excitedly choreographing the “office olympics”: The thing about Jim is when he's excited about something, like the Office Olympics, he gets really into it and he does a really great job. But the problem with Jim is that he works here, so that hardly ever happens. It’s the same with me: Softball and hockey remind me of the best of myself — driven, intense, focused, analytical, ambitious, physically capable — at a time when I feel unfit for and undesired by “the real world.” Maybe I can't find gainful employment or career satisfaction, or meet society's typical measures of "success," but at least I know I can accomplish something hard.


Anyway, back to hockey and being an ogre… In my last game-day, I scored 8 points in the first game against Glasgow Phoenix, vaulting me from 18th in league scoring to 3rd. The Ogres were 4-2 and I was on the top line. The key to our success was a new young player from Pittsburgh, Colton, with whom I had immediate chemistry. Our newly reformed and now pretty good Ogres team was set to play an old bully—The Kirkcaldy (“Kirkcoddy”) Knights, who we'd never been able to beat. Colton scored the third goal and I scored the fourth, putting us on top with a few minutes left. Colton stabbed at the ball in front of the net, accidentally hitting the goalie’s thumb. The goalie retaliated by delivering a vicious uppercut slash to the groin of Colton, who immediately crumpled to the floor in pain. There’s a thin line separating the sportsman from the savage, the gentleman from the goon, the knight from the ogre. In sports, and in life, sometimes the most gentlemanly thing you can do is not to “calmly express your feelings” or “verbally resolve problems”; it’s to pull your fist back and pop someone in the mouth. With my new line mate on the ground holding his crotch, I knew this was my chance to live out my operatic drama, to exercise physical bravery, to stick up for a fallen teammate, and to feel like a worthy and competent human being. I knew I had no choice.