For seven dollars every Monday and Saturday the Rockford Park District gives hockey players a chance to put aside their problems for 90 minutes. They call it Open Hockey.
Run Rockford, Illinois through a search engine and it becomes obvious why Forbes magazine constantly ranks us in the top ten places to live in America. We were the Forrest City; then a tree disease killed most of the elms. We were the “Screw Capitol of the World;” then most of the manufacturing jobs died too. Hockey helps us forget that, or at least put it out of our minds for a bit.
For an hour and a half, twice a week, we can forget our egoic needs for more money, a better job or just a better situation in general. The game helps us to live in the moment. The game helps to enjoy the moment too. In Rockford, Illinois hockey provides a brief and needed escape from this reality.
Since I started looking for a career eight months ago, I’ve played in almost every open hockey game. It’s become a community for me; the kind of environment Robert Putnam longed for when he wrote Bowling Alone. The game unites us.
I’ve played with all types of skaters at these games: The young guys who played in college, former Illinois State Champions, perhaps looking to relive their past glory or perhaps just out for a good game with their friends. They skate alongside the middle aged men dressed in crisp, red Toews jerseys who learned the game “better late than never.” The men in the Indian head sweaters don’t seem to mind they’ve done for weeks what others have done for years.
There are guys who use open hockey to practice and recruit for their beer drinking (and hockey) tournaments in exotic locations like Kalamazoo, Michigan.
I’ve seen a teenager who always brings a pair “Skittles gloves” and the enthusiasm typically reserved for a Game 7 and an outspoken goalie whose son always watches from the penalty box. I watched as a 68-year-old preacher score 5 goals.
There are two regulars who played juniors. One’s looking for his next professional team; the other’s looking for his next IPA.
There’s a long haired young man who uses Open Hockey to pick at the scabs that cover a hockey career that he never had. To watch him streak across the ice in his old Rockford hockey club Bantam jersey is a beautiful tragedy.
I asked this man what it was like to play on the traveling youth hockey club. To hear him tell it other teams do not enjoy playing Rockford. Geographically, it’s close enough to the bucolic towns of southern Wisconsin and Chicago suburbs with high property taxes to justify the two hour or so car rides every weekend. Culturally, we might as well be on the moon.
The other reason no one enjoys playing Rockford in hockey? We’re pretty good, too. The Icemen, a combined high school team has won the state championship 17 times consecutively.
No, we’re not Warrod. No one has gone from Rockford to the NHL (Our lone Olympian is Janet Lynn, a figure skater whose name is on a sign at the rink even though she practiced outdoors about 20 miles away). I bet someone will make it in the next two decades. The youth hockey program has nearly tripled in size over the last ten years-about the same amount of time since the Blackhawks started televising their home games. The more kids shuffle in and out of Riverview Ice House, a poorly lit barn of an ice arena that won’t conform to the UN standards on carbon emissions in five years, the more hockey will serve as a source of civic pride to the people of Rockford, Illinois.
People in Rockford need the game; people like me. I’m just another guy who used an old pair of shoulder pads to absorb a painful breakup, a loaned stick to fend off his depression and a new pair of Tacks to remember how to enjoy the moment. And I’ve regained my sanity, seven dollars and ninety minutes at a time.