Inside Pickwick ice rink, the coldest night-spot in Burbank, Russ Carr was kneeling on the permafrost, doubled over in pain. A collision during a hockey game had put his right arm out of whack. He was moaning and wincing--not at all a pretty sight. A quick phone call to nearby St. Joseph's Hospital seemed to be his only hope. With a little luck, the medics still had time to put everything back in place and give him at least partial use of the limb.
Then the buzzer sounded and Carr sprang to his feet, leaped over the boards with his bad arm and rejoined his linemates as if nothing had happened.
Watching Carr's miraculous recovery was Bruce Teitell, director of the Los Angles County Hockey Assn. Teitell laughed at the possibility that Carr should have been on a stretcher, not the ice. "What do you think we're playing here--baseball?" he said. "Our guys don't sit out two weeks with a hangnail."
Hockey players, of course, are noted for durability. In the National Hockey League, it is not unusual for a player to undergo minor surgery between periods. But NHL players are being paid a lot of money to ignore their stitches and play for the good of the team. In the LACHA, the players pay to play. The pain is free.
"I had a couple of broken ribs last year," said Dr. John Halebian, who plays with Carr for the Cobras. "It was pretty hard getting up for work the next day. But there's one advantage in being a doctor--you can medicate yourself."
Teitell laughed again. "Injuries? We get a lot more than bowling."
Teitell's breath hung in the cold air. This was a weather scene from another world. Tomorrow's forecast: sub-zero temperatures, ice storms, sleet. Perfect for hockey. The pond will freeze over. The kids will get out from school. From upstate New York to East Icicle, Nova Scotia, pickup games of hockey will be taking place, and little boys will fantasize about becoming the next Wayne Gretzky.
The Valley is one of the last places on Earth you'd expect to find an organized hockey league. There are only three full-size indoor rinks in the land of orange groves. For as long as anyone can remember, large frozen ponds haven't been seen in the Valley, and the natives are more intimate with Frisbees and skateboards than pucks and skates. Which is why the majority of the 300 players in the LACHA are either a) transplanted Easterners and Canadians, or b) Californians who went to hockey-playing colleges.
Curiously, the founder and president of the league is c) none of the above. As a kid growing up in the Valley, Brad Berman learned his hockey on small indoor rinks at the Topanga Mall and the Lancaster YMCA. When he was 11, his parents moved to the Bay Area, which has a large boys' hockey program. Berman began getting serious about hockey. At 16, he played on the state championship midget team. In 1979, he returned to Los Angeles and became a member of the police department.
"I started an ice hockey league within the LAPD," said Berman, now a vice cop in Van Nuys, "but there was no one for us to play. The LACHA just sort of evolved out of that league to provide us with competition. The funny thing is, there's no LAPD team anymore, and only a half-dozen policemen who play in the LACHA."
The Zamboni glazed the ice after the 7:30 p.m. game between Team California--the best teen-agers in the state--against a team from the LACHA. In the 9 p.m. game, Berman's team, the Cobras, was to play the Flyers in their regular-season opener. As the players changed in the locker room adjacent to the outdoor pool, they knew the NHL was a long way off. The rink alone, with its dim lighting and slapshot streaks on the plexiglass, is enough to wipe out any illusions of future glory. But that doesn't make any difference to these guys.
"When my team won the championship last season," said Teitell, who coaches the Sabres, "our reaction was the same as if we'd won the Stanley Cup. My players doused me with champagne and threw me in the shower. It was a great feeling."
Most of the players in the league are like Ira Schwartz, roly-poly goalie and captain of the Flyers who grew up playing hockey on the frozen playgrounds of New York City. A few years ago, he worked as a target for the New York Rangers as their practice goalie. "I love hockey, but I never wanted to play pro," he said. "When your hobby becomes a job, it's no longer fun."
Hockey can be an expensive hobby. Aside from paying $10 a game for the privilege of getting bashed against the boards during a 30-game season, the players in the LACHA must supply their own uniforms and equipment, usually buying them at the half-dozen hockey shops in the metropolitan area. Skates can cost from $150 to $200, pants and gloves more than $120, pads as much as $75. Even socks are $35. And renting the rink costs $110 an hour.