The boys of winter leave warm beds in darkness, tiptoeing out of bedrooms, lugging heavy bags, sticks, and skates. They arrive at the Pilgrim Skating Arena in Hingham in the still of an early morning sky.
Dennis McMath, 63, a former Boston chef, got tired of playing hockey in the evenings and formed the Has Been Hockey League in 1995.
“When it’s 10 degrees out in February and you’ve eaten dinner, getting off the couch at 9 o’clock at night, that’s not a lot of fun,” he says.
So he trademarked the name and the logo of a hockey player holding a coffee mug and wearing a necktie. He organized four teams that rotate playing each other on two ice rinks three times per week. Games start at 6:30 a.m., and afterward the players mingle over coffee, juice, peanut butter and bananas, and bagels and cream cheese before heading to work.
Emotions run low in the morning; fights are almost unheard of.
“Night leagues are a lot more chippy,” he says. “Guys go to work and have a bad day at work, they argue with their wife or girlfriend. I like to think people get up in the morning with a somewhat clear head. No one’s had time to have a bad day yet. I always tell people you should come in in a good mood.”
They come in all ages — from their mid 20s to their 70s — and from all walks of life. Former Bruin Kevin Stevens played, saying he simply missed the camaraderie. There are carpenters, plumbers, stock brokers, a coffin salesman, state troopers, lawyers, judges, and even a player who skated with an ankle bracelet — his own private penalty box.
“We had a guy, I guess he had a 20-mile radius of his hometown, he used to notch out his skates so he could put on the skates,” says McMath of Marshfield.
It’s a diverse group. It’s not unusual to have a retired 6-foot-3-inch NFL offensive guard battling for a puck against a 5-3 former collegiate women’s hockey academic all-star.
“She’s 130 pounds, he’s 280, and she throws her elbows out and gets right in there,” says McMath.
Alex Bernstein, 44, played four seasons for the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and Atlanta Falcons. He used to weigh 347 pounds, but hockey has helped him trim down. Getting up is the hard part, he says. His wife doesn’t like being awoken before dawn.
“I try to tiptoe out in the morning as quiet as I can, but inevitably I’m sure I wake her up.”
The dog doesn’t like it, either.
“He doesn’t like going out in the dark.”
But for Bernstein, now an investor and entrepreneur, the early morning workout is perfect.
“I’ve always been a high-energy person, I don’t sleep a ton, I have a lot of nervous energy, so I always want to keep busy, and playing sports is a great outlet for this energy and emotion.”
The locker room is filled with wise guys.
“That’s a big part of it and that helps keep me young. We’re all aging, and we are all trying to cling to our youth.”
Before injuries cut short his NFL career, the Amherst College graduate used to banter with a young Jets defensive coach named Bill Belichick, who had played for rival Wesleyan University.
“You always miss that locker room thing, busting people’s chops before and after the game,” he says.
Andrea Boudreau, 46, an offensive standout at Brown University in the 1990s, has played in both men’s leagues and women’s leagues.
“A hockey player is a hockey player,” says the social worker. But she prefers the less aggressive early morning skate.
“This is a much more enjoyable league. It’s competitive, but they want to have fun. There are no cheap hits from behind. It’s just people that want to play. People respect the fact that people have got to go to work.”
Erik Steverman, a Scituate police detective, wakes up at 5 a.m. to play.
“The morning option is far better than the evening option, because when I play at night it’s mandatory that I drink beers in the parking lot for two hours,’’ he says with a smile.
Chris O’Neill, 40, a business communications executive from Abington, has his own strategy. He deliberately shows up late.
“I wait until everybody’s tired, and then I go out there and pad my stats, put a couple of biscuits in the basket,” he says.
During the morning action, Brendan Eklund skates off the ice with a bloody gash next to his left eyebrow. He pounds the glass with his fist, frustrated that he can’t go back into the game. He’s destined for a trip to the South Shore Hospital emergency room and eight stitches.
McMath, who no longer plays, rushes to get him an ice pack and a first aid kit. Eklund, a diesel mechanic, vows to return.
“Oh yeah, I’ll be back,” he says. “My entire family grew up playing hockey. It’s more interactive than any other sport. You’re not just sitting there like in center field waiting for a ball to be hit. It’s more a team sport.”
Bill Holbrook, 64, the goalie, has a unique philosophy. The drummer and housepainter skates to his own beat.
He arrives early at 5:45.
“I have a couple of beers, couple of cigarettes, and then I play.”
A couple of beers?
“Actually three. I do it all the time. Liquid courage. It makes me rubbery.”
It’s just after the game and Holbrook pops outside to have another Marlboro. The game was very, very close.
“We eked out a loss,” he says. After the smoke he’ll shower, have breakfast and head for work.
He’s been playing for a quarter century.
“It’s great exercise,’’ he says. “I couldn’t picture myself going to a gym or going out running. It’s just the competition, it’s a lot of fun.”
He’s not worried about the surgeon general’s report, either.
“I’m a veteran and they said my oxygen level is that of a non-smoker, cause I exercise. I’m up and down ladders. I’m active. And I weigh 125 pounds.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.