Crushed ice: Boot hockey bar leagues gaining popularity
Outside of Park Place Sports Bar it's about 10 degrees. Out back, on a small rink partially lit by neon beer signs, bundled-up men try to gain traction as they run across a sheet of ice.
Steaming breath from the players' mouths rises in the air and mixes with cigarette smoke. Sticks slap the ice. A rock-hard ball ricochets off the boards. There aren't any water bottles behind the bench, just clear plastic cups filled with ice and stir sticks.
And everything is just right.
Like a much-friendlier Fight Club, boot hockey bar leagues like the one at Park Place in St. Paul Park, are giving hockey players a place to hit the ice and reconnect with longtime friends.
"It gives you a chance to play some sort of hockey still," said Chris Rudh, a 1990 Park graduate and current assistant coach of the Park boys hockey team. "I love playing hockey. I still coach and have kids that play. This is just another form of hockey for me. We all kind of know each other and we have a blast coming down here. It's fun."
Nick Groess, a Cottage Grove native and Park 1998 graduate, has been playing in the Park Place league for five years. He said the league is almost like a high school reunion.
"You get a lot of alumni from different years that come out," he said. "All the guys who played together kind of stay together on teams, but there's a lot of different age groups from high school that you know from growing up. They all come out."
Park Place's winter boot hockey league started 17 years ago, according to bar manager Todd Christensen, who runs the league. This winter, 36 teams play in the league. Teams have wacky names like Jail Sucks, Just One More, Hot Shots and Wastings. Men's teams play on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and are broken up into "A," "B," and "C" levels of play, with "A" being the best. Women play on Monday. Teams come to St. Paul Park from all over the metro - Cottage Grove, South St. Paul, Woodbury, Stillwater, Hastings and Inver Grove Heights for the most part. The league at Park Place pulls former high school, Division I and Division III players.
"I'd assume everyone out here played high school hockey," said Groess, who played for Park. "You gotta' know what you're doing out year or you're lost. It's pretty serious. We have fun after it, but when it's game time people get serious about it. They want to be the best team out here. "
Christensen said the league is the brainchild of Park Place owner Tom Decker. Christiansen and Decker played hockey together in college at the University of Wisconsin - River Falls.
"It's his idea and it's a great idea," Christensen said. "Some bars do volleyball in the summer, like us, but there's nothing to do in the winter. You can see people in the bar watching the game and outside they're playing the game they love. It's gotten a little bigger every year."
Rudh said he's been playing in Park Place's winter boot hockey league for roughly seven years. He currently plays for a team called Barseenlive, which plays in the "A" league on Wednesday nights.
"It's gotten to be a very big deal down here," Rudh said. "There's probably a few bars that have this kind of setup - a nice little rink and a bar atmosphere - but the league here at Park Place has gotten to be a real competitive league. "
Unlike Fight Club, the first rule of boot hockey at Park Place is no fighting allowed. One player fights, the whole team is tossed out of the league.
"There's been some times you see some altercations or whatever, but everyone down here realizes they have to get up in the morning and go to work," Rudh said. "Everyone can laugh about things afterwards and have fun. I've never seen anything carry over to the bar after the game. It's good that way."
Christensen admitted it was "a little bit crazier" 5-10 years ago, but he said he feels the league has been cleaned up for the most part.
"We're out here to have a good time. If anyone does anything stupid, they don't get to play anymore," he said. "I don't want to see anyone get hurt."
The games at Park Place are 3-on-3. Boot hockey, sometimes called the unofficial national sport of Canada's elementary schools, isn't played with a puck, but a cold-weather street hockey ball is used instead.
"On a cold night like tonight it feels like you're getting hit with a pool ball out there," Christensen said. "You can hear it against the boards."
A number of cities' Park and Rec associations offer boot hockey leagues. Other bars host them too, like BeBop Sports Bar in Blaine, Buffalo House in Duluth, Duck's Pub and Billiards in St. Cloud, Buggs Bar in South St. Paul and Sak's Sports Bar in Vadnais Heights.
"There's a couple of other bars that are trying to do something like we do," Christensen said. "It's a different game out here though. It's real quick. Our rink is about half the size of a regular rink. It takes teams a couple years before they get competitive, because some of these teams have been out here a while. They know how to play out there."
Aside from a smaller rink, which creates a faster-paced game, what sets Park Place apart from the rest of the leagues is a refrigeration system under the ice which ensures a season from the first week of November all the way through March.
"We put that in about seven years ago," Christensen said. "We were just like the other places - fighting to have ice out here - and sometimes we wouldn't have ice until after Christmas. But, now we don't have that problem. We go from volleyball to hockey in about three weeks. It's the only place in town where you can get the guaranteed ice like this and we run a pretty well-organized league down here."
The league at Park place had humble beginnings. It started with a handful of teams one night a week. Over the years, more teams joined and equipment was upgraded.
"We didn't have the nice boards or the Plexiglas," Christensen said. "It was a lot more simple. But, it's gotten a little fancier over the years. Now it's pretty much like a normal hockey rink."
At the end of the season, teams head to the playoffs for a shot at bar-league boot hockey infamy.
Though the games get even more serious in the playoffs, said Rudh, most players keep a good perspective.
"This is more about being able to get together with the guys, playing the game and getting out," Rudh said. "You get T-shirts and stuff for winning. It's not for the Stanley Cup. I think people realize that."