Desert hockey delivers

2008-01-31T00:00:00Z Desert hockey deliversBy Coley Ward CWARD@AZSTARNET.COM Arizona Daily Star
January 31, 2008 12:00 am  • 

The action is fast and frantic in the Pima Street Hockey League. About a dozen players are gathered for a Saturday night game at the outdoor rink at Catalina Magnet High School.

Ben Rhodes, an Englishman who works for Alicia Submarines LLC, a company that builds subs for private use, launches slapshot after slapshot at goalie Tom Brace, a former regular who is in town from Tempe.

Weston Sadler, 22, sporting a Colorado Avalanche jersey, deeks left, then right, on his way to the net. The Salt Lake City native has been playing hockey since he was 17. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2004 after completing high school and is currently stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

Jennifer Wirth, 35, works in customer relations for Kuumba Made Body Care Company and is a former soccer player. Tonight, decked out in a knit winter cap, black pants and a white T-shirt over top a striped long sleeve shirt, she's playing defense, anchoring her team's left side.

And then there's Tim Bowen, 29, a Web designer who is wearing a Philadelphia Flyers jersey, khaki cargo pants and a backwards burgundy baseball cap. He stick-handles around defenders with relative ease, dishing to teammates and sneaking into the slot for easy scores.

Bowen is the most experienced player in the league. During the summer after his freshman year at the University of Cincinnati he played professional roller hockey for the now defunct Washington (D.C.) Power of the Major League Roller Hockey.

"Professional hockey wasn't as fun," he says. "It made it into a job."

Bowen says he quit the Power before the end of the summer to take a job at a pizza joint in Rehoboth Beach, Del. He says playing professionally was too demanding.

"We had practice every morning and every afternoon," he says. "Pretty hardcore practice. All drills and conditioning. None of the fun part of hockey. It was the first time in my life I didn't enjoy playing."

It's safe to say that the Bowen's new league is less work. And more fun.

The Pima Street Hockey League sounds more formal than it actually is. The word 'league' connotes a level of organization and sophistication that doesn't exist. There are no uniforms. No fees. No referees.

In fact, it's less a league than a pick-up game. Players gather under the lights at one of the two cement rinks at the corner of East Pima Street and North Palo Verde Boulevard. On Saturday and Wednesday nights they play on foot. On Sunday and Monday nights they play on skates.

Bowen attends every game — at least three a week — bringing with him all the league's equipment, including two nets, padding for both goalies and 15 sticks.

When there are enough players, about five or so, they shoot at goalies. On leaner nights they shoot at milk crates.

Teams are chosen based largely on what color shirts players are wearing.

While other sports leagues may offer a more "professional" experience, consider this: The PSHL has been around at the same location, under the same name, for nearly a decade.

It must be doing something right.

The beginning

"I was actually there when it started," says Bob Kennedy, an Ottawa native who attended the University of Arizona in the mid-'90s and now lives in Santa Barbara, where he teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara. "It was me and a couple of friends who had all moved to Tucson from places where hockey was more normal. We were all kind of missing hockey . . . but we couldn't afford cable, so we couldn't watch it on TV. And if we went to a bar, it was unlikely it would be on."

Kennedy says he and his friends bought a toy net and some sticks and started playing regular games in a church parking lot.

"I don't think we were supposed to be playing there, because it was private property," he says. "And the ball would always roll past the net, because there was no fence."

They came to Eric Michael Ogden Skate Park at the high school after outgrowing the church parking lot, and to a fenced-in Midtown basketball court.

"We started playing there every week in 2000," Kennedy says.

The evolution

There aren't many pickup games with Web sites. But the Pima Street Hockey League has a great one. Bowen, who is the league president and works for the green design firm Creative Slice, launched the group's site in 2004 and revamped it, adding more graphics and game recaps, in 2005. Many current players found out about the league through the site, which contains a history of the league, player bios and a bulletin board where players can RSVP for upcoming games.

Brace, who plays goalie and joined the league in 2000, says he first heard about it online.

"I don't skate but I love hockey," Brace says. "I played goalie when we played floor hockey in high school and I was looking for a floor hockey league in Tucson. The first thing that popped up on my Google search was the PSHL."

Brace says he went to a game just to look around. That's where he met Kennedy.

"I told them I'm a goalie. That's all I do." he says. "They said, 'We're desperate for goalies.' So I became sort of the defacto goalie."

Like all leagues, the PSHL has fluid membership. Many of its members are students at the UA and live here for only a few years.

"At the height of when we were playing, 2000-2004, we'd have full sides plus subs — about 20 people," Brace says.

The friendships

Both Maros Servatka and Rado Vadovic have since left Tucson, but Bowen says he developed a fierce rivalry with the two UA graduate students from Slovakia.

"They would be on one team and I would be on the other," he says. "We used to have really epic battles. We would think about it all week. I would go stretches where I would lose every game for a month. And others where my team would win every game for a month."

Servatka, who now lives in New Zealand, said in an e-mail to Caliente that he met some of his best friends playing hockey. Many were also grad students at the UA, and he said they would talk about their research in between periods.

"During breaks and after the games we would drink beer and talk about our research and get different perspectives on it," he wrote. "But hockey would still dominate our conversations. But it wasn't only this — in the PSHL I have found great friends with whom I would spend much time together outside of the rink as well, hiking, traveling or just simply hanging out."

Wirth says she enjoys hanging out with league members after games.

"Sometimes, Tim will have a party and we'll go over to his house after games, because he has a pool," she says.

The romance

The majority of the league's players are men, but there are a handful of loyal woman players.

"When I started there was only me," said Naghmeh Saghafi, who joined the league in 2004. "Then a few more girls joined and there were four of us."

Saghafi says she met her husband, the aforementioned Vadovic, playing hockey. But they didn't click right away.

"For about two years we didn't speak a word, really," she said. "Then one day he said he was going to grab some chicken wings at Chuy's and asked if I wanted to go with him. And we hit it off."

Saghafi says a year and a half later the two were engaged. Six months after that they were married. They invited eight hockey players to the wedding, but only six could attend. Jason Spensley, a player in the league, was a minister at the wedding.

The day after the wedding, there was a hockey game.

"Since a lot of players were returning to Tucson from out of town, the wedding was a good excuse to play a game," Saghafi said.

Saghafi isn't the only player who has found love at the rink.

Kennedy met his wife playing hockey, too.

"She was an assistant professor at UA," he says. "We met playing hockey at the Catalina courts, waiting for the courts to dry off after a monsoon. She played for about six months, but she was more interested in the social aspect of gathering with people, rather than playing. After we started dating we were able to blend our social circles and she no longer needed hockey as a way of meeting people."

Kennedy says he and his then-fiance left Tucson about three years before they were married. When they left, the league played a game in their honor.

"It was the kind of thing when somebody said, 'Hey, make sure everybody comes because it's going to be Bob's last game,'" he says. "There was a party at one of the guy's apartments."

The injuries

Wirth says hockey isn't as violent as the women's soccer league she used to play in.

"Some of those girls play rough," she says. "I got spiked one time. A girl stomped on my foot with her cleats. I was out six months, couldn't run. The hockey guys are nice. It's not so rough, not as rough as it could be."

Brace says he "very rarely missed any games," but when he did, it was due to injury: once when he broke some ribs and once when he broke his nose.

"I had cut some of the metal out of my helmet so I could see a little better," he says. "This guy, Will, has one of the hardest slapshots in the league and he hit a shot that stuck right in the middle of my face mask. It bent the medal around the ball and hit me square in the bridge of my nose. The ball was lodged in my mask. I looked like a clown. I finished the game though."

Eric Michael Ogden Skate Park

The park is on the grounds of Catalina Magnet High School, but it's maintained by the city's parks and recreation department.

The park is named for Eric Ogden, an 11-year-old Tucson boy who died in 1997 from injuries suffered in an all-terrain vehicle accident. Eric was a hockey lover who often skated with his friends at the Catalina site.

A memorial foundation in Eric's name awards scholarships to Pima Community College. Donations can be made through the PCC Foundation, 4905 E. Broadway, Tucson, 85709.

Eric Michael Ogden Skate Park consists of two fenced-in areas: one is primarily used by hockey players and the Arizona Rollergirls, the other is a popular hangout for skateboarders.

The park is open to the public when school is not in session — after school, on weekends, during the summer and on holidays.

— Coley Ward

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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