By Joseph Robertia
Paul Walker could see puffs of his own breath in the cold air, proof of how hard he had just been skating, and the blood tricking from his left brow was equal evidence that even recreational-league hockey is not without risk.
“A puck to the face is a good wake-up call,” he joked.
Despite the injury, he said he was still having a great time at the adult-league Tier 1 Rusty Blades annual hockey tournament, held this weekend at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Though Walker didn’t even know the tournament existed 24 hours earlier.
“Last night was the first I heard of it,” he said Saturday, day two of the three-day tourney.
Up from Connecticut for work, Walker was asked to play after a member of the Mystery Alaska team, from Anchorage, was unable to take to the ice. Walker jumped at the chance to experience how hockey is played in a state with a lot more natural ice.
“There’s not quite as much finesse as back home. The guys here are a little stronger and faster,” he said.
The rink was much larger than he was used to playing on in the Lower 48.
“This is big ice here, which we don’t have a lot of back east. You can really stretch out and get in some longer passes,” he said.
Trevor Baldwin, Rusty Blades commissioner, said that the purpose of the event is meeting people from other areas and exchanging with them on and off the ice.
“This is a league for guys who love and have an appreciation for hockey. There’s no trophy at the end. It’s just about having fun and socializing with other teams from other areas,” he said.
This year’s tournament featured four teams playing round robin to determine the winner. Baldwin said that eight teams is the norm, but this year some of the usual teams had other commitments.
“We have a core group that comes down (to Soldotna), but like with the Mystery Alaska team this year, sometimes we’ll have other teams hear about this and ask if they can come down,” he said.
Doug Wieste, a player on the Mystery Alaska team, said that he came to the peninsula to see how his and his team’s skill level stacked up against others from around the state.
“It can get pretty boring playing the same teams where you’re from, but coming down here, we had no idea what or who we’d be playing against,” he said.
Playing teams from other regions can be an eye-opening experience, as Wieste found out Saturday morning.
“We’re ranked third place in Anchorage, but we got beat 11-0 this morning,” he said.
The whipping didn’t bother Wieste, though. Having played hockey for most of his life, he said he just enjoys engagements on the ice for the love of the sport, rather than the win.
“I’ve played for so long, I just can’t imagine not doing it, but it also keeps me active, and well. In Alaska, with all the darkness in winter, you can really find yourself in a slump if you get lazy, so indoor-outdoor hockey keeps me going,” he said.
Zach Waters, of Soldotna, has been on skates since not long after he could stand. Like Wieste, he said he enjoys the fitness aspect of hockey, but that recreational-league hockey is different than what he has known most of his life.
“I love the speed, the balance, the coordination and contact. I like everything about it. I’ve played since I was 4, played for Soldotna, then went to Toronto and played Junior A. Now that I’m back I just want to play good hockey. There’s no coach breathing down your neck and there are no set positions. We switch it up, rotate positions and have fun with it,” he said.
Not everyone is the same experience level, either, Baldwin said.
“It’s a wide range of players. Some have played Division I in college, some teams have ex pros, and some are guys who just learned a few years ago. But with this low-key atmosphere, it’s easy to spot the guys who are just learning and trying hard to keep up, and we’ll take it easy on them and let them get some time on the puck,” he said.
The players who are more experienced also keep their skills sharp.
“It’s good practice for bigger tournaments later in the year, and a good bonding experience for when we will see the guys we meet here at these other tournaments,” Baldwin said.
The guys played all day, and hang out at night, as people, rather than players.
“Guys have time to go back to the hotel, cruise the town or hit a restaurant or bar and swap war stories from the day,” Baldwin said. “No matter where we came from, we share in common that we all ended up in men’s league and we all have the same love of the game.”