Off the Cutting Edge

This Hockey League Doesn’t Allow Big Wheels, Either

Sarah Bennett hates Rollerblades. So when the amiable 23-year-old founded a street hockey league a year and a half ago, the use of "fruit boots"—a derogatory skateboarders' term she's partial to—wasn't even an option. "You need to be able to skate and play hockey at the same time?" She asks incredulously. "I can't do that." Rollerblades "up the ante of skill," Bennett explains on a recent game day, speaking above the constant clacking of hockey sticks at the Lower East Side's remote Corlears Hook Park.

Welcome to Black Top Street Hockey, an athletic league for the nonathletic—and skateless.

BTSH players tend to be "the indie rock kids who in high school sat on the sidelines—they all ran awkwardly or something—and were never on sports teams," says league member Nathaniel Hawks, who points out that he was on his high school track team. "The anti-jock crowd, basically," adds the 25-year-old, who plays guitar in an indie instrumental trio called Us vs. Them and operates the Brooklyn-based record label Little Fury Things.

BTSH's rep as the punk rock hockey leagueisn't surprising considering that its base of operations has been Sound and Fury, an independent record store on the Lower East Side. While clerking there in the spring of 2000, Bennett began looking for a fun, inexpensive summer activity, and for people to share it with. At the time, she felt that "there were cool people out there and that they were impossible to find."

She chose street hockey in part because it was a favorite pastime of hers at Camp Evergreen in New Hampshire, a sleep-away camp for girls. (She and a friend, the two badasses who wore Doc Martens, used the sport "as an excuse to beat the shit out of girls who were mean to us," she recalls fondly.) Bennett, now a writer for About.com, got in the habit of asking Sound and Fury patrons whether they'd be interested in playing some old-school street hockey.

Since its first scrimmage, attended by about 10 people, BTSH has grown entirely by word of mouth. After two successful summer seasons, organizers decided to try a seven-week fall season, which wrapped up the second Sunday in November. Some 150 people, around half of them women, came out for the fall, according to organizer Amy Baker, 28. Maybe they generated enough energy that even more street hockey players will emerge this spring.

The latest roster featured eight teams, with monikers like Plagued Cow Insurance, the Recessions, the Soxy Hoes, and, more obviously, What the Puck. The Rumpshakers, named after a zine put out by a BTSH member, were the season champs.

While most of the league—a predominantly white crew, averaging age 25—would look right at home at a show at Brownies, Baker rejects the "punk rock" and "hipster" tags that some observers have attached to the league. "From the outside it might appear that way," she says, "but there are people who work in finance, people who play in bands—one guy is a rabbi." Some, like Hawks, even played sports in high school. "It's a definite mix of people," says Baker. "We've all been able to become friends through the weekly Sunday hockey game."

Still, there have been internal debates over how "punk" the league should be. "I didn't even know if we were gonna have nets, because somebody kept saying it wasn't 'punk,' " Bennett says of the early days. "They thought that we should use trash cans." The net faction prevailed.

Many players credit BTSH's significant female presence—the core of one team, Henry St. Wines & Liq's, is six women who live together in a house in Cobble Hill—with limiting the amount of machismo on the blacktop. Aggression, at least an outward display of it, is actively discouraged, contrary to what that team's logo (a cracked skull crossed with bony hockey sticks) and motto ("It's on, asshole!") would seem to suggest. The most important rule in the official BTSH pamphlet is also the most succinct: "Don't be a dick."

Organizers' attempts to discourage dick-like behavior, such as body checks, have kept injuries to a minimum. Far more blood is splattered on the BTSH Web site—courtesy of Flash effects—than is shed during actual play. Some participants opt for protection in the form of shin guards and pads, but Bennett detects a Fight Club-esque masochistic streak among others: "They love going to work on Monday with a huge bruise."

While testosterone levels may have been tempered, pheromone levels have not. "I dated a guy in the league," Bennett reports. "And I've pimped so many people it's unreal." All this social activity makes for good gossip at the after-game get-togethers at Welcome to the Johnsons, the Lower East Side bar modeled after a suburban rec room: "Did you see so-and-so talking to so-and-so?" Bennett says, mimicking a teenage girl.

"This last season has been high school."

 
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