It's 5:15 p.m. on a Sunday at what just might be the least-glitzy venue in Los Angeles. No agents, producers or papar frequent the Laurel Plaza ice rink, located in a downscale shopping mall in North Hollywood. Outside the rink's glass doors, shoppers check out the May Co., Joel's Career 'n' Campus shop, the fine salads--"prepared with fresh vegetables"--at Hot Dog Heaven & Yogurt. Inside, about 20 big galoots dressed in skates, pads and long underwear look for a taste of a sport best played in the winter. Or rather, where there is a winter.
Thw-a-a-ak! An errant slap shot, launched by a guy in a fading Montreal Canadiens jersey, slams against the backboard of the undersized rink. The evening pickup hockey league is back in action. A man laces his skates on the sideline, near the machine that dispenses awful hot apple cider, looks up and shakes his head.
His jersey, which reads "Washington Capitals," is newer than most of the others. And his face, underneath a two-day stubble, is familiar.
A kid wearing full goalie regalia stumps past. "Hey, Al," he says, thumping him on the shins with a big stick. Al grunts in reply and bends down to tend to his Bauer hockey skates.
"This is all-star wrestling at a low temperature," Alan Thicke says with a crooked smile. The star of ABC's "Growing Pains," a Canadian in lucrative exile, likes to refresh his cultural heritage here every week.
"I'm a slow-scoring center with just two weaknesses--offense and defense," Thicke says as he climbs over the boards for a few warm-up laps. Nonetheless, he adds, he plays once or twice a week, year-round, when his schedule permits. He circulates around the rink, threading his way through slower skaters. This is not a beer commercial--there's little backslapping, bantering or even smiling. "I know a few of the players," says Thicke, taking a breather. And they know him from ABC or the cover of TV Guide. But what of it?
"Yeah. I'm really impressed," Gene (Ski) Kowalewski says at the prospect of playing with a highly rated sitcom dad. Look fast or you'll miss his lightning-quick eye roll. Still, after sides are chosen up, the North Hollywood electrical contractor doesn't seem upset about winding up on Thicke's five-man team. "He does all right," Ski allows.
Each team goes out for a three-minute scrimmage, then both sides sit down and watch the other squads duke it out. There are six teams, so Thicke and friends play every third scrimmage. They throw themselves over the boards, skate themselves into oxygen debt, then sit down and watch their sweat freeze. Over and over, until 7:30. The two goalies are permanently in front of their nets. Simple, eh?
"I can center a couple of those guys," murmurs Thicke to no one in particular. And no one in particular agrees or disagrees with him. Thicke learned hockey in his hometown, the flinty gold-mining community ("The deepest shaft in North America") of Kirkland Lake, Ontario. "Kids skated out of the delivery room. Your mother owned a hockey stick," says Thicke of Kirkland Lake, birthplace of such hockey stars as Ralph Backstrom, Dick Duff and Mickey Redmond.
And where did this leave Thicke? "On the bench. At an outdoor rink. At 10 below zero," he says. One day, when his Bantam League coach decided to put him in the last five minutes of a game, he found that his tongue had fallen out of his mouth, so stupefied was he by the cold, and had frozen onto the metal rink railing. "They had to stop the game, boil some water, and pour it on the railing to free me. My puberty was delayed by three years. My dad suggested I quit."
But non. Against a team of light-colored jerseys, Thicke--centering a line with Ski and a fellow in a tattered Calgary Flames jersey who prefers not to give his name ("I work for Great Western Savings")--skates stylishly and watches the opposition score one, two, three goals. "We got to play together more," Ski says to his teammates when they're back on the bench. "I stay on my wing, but my center seems to want to . . . help me," he says. Thicke takes no offense.
"I just love the game. It's the greatest sport in the world," Thicke says later from the sidelines. Away at college, free from his NHL-bound competition, he was a passable player, he says. As an aspiring comedy writer in Hollywood in the early '70s, he was a hotshot scorer for the Van Nuys Rebels, a team in Los Angeles' own NHL, the amateur North Hollywood League. Also, as one of the 10 or so fans that the Los Angeles Kings had at the time, he went out drinking after the games with players like Backstrom, Duff and Mike Corrigan, homesick Canadians all. "We went to places with names like the Melody Bar, where they had cowgirl waitresses, played Buddy Holly songs on the jukebox and drank Harvey Wallbangers." It was, for a former Kirkland player, a spot close to hockey heaven.