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Pick-up hockey in the desert – it isn't what you think

Arizona might be among the last states that comes to mind when you think of an American hockey hotbed, but the desert has its fair share of talent and is a hub in its own unique way.
Ken Campbell

Ken Campbell

TEMPE, Ariz. – Truth be told, I had two fairly significant fears when my wife and I packed up the minivan and decamped to Arizona for a month in the middle of the hockey season. The first was that I wouldn’t be able to find anyone with whom to play pick-up hockey in the desert and what little skill I had left would erode. The second was that I would find hockey players in Arizona and I’d still be the worst player on the ice.

“Wait a minute, you’re from Toronto and you write for The Hockey News?” I could hear them asking. “Why do you suck so badly? We’re here playing in the middle of the friggin’ desert and we’re skating and stickhandling circles around you.”

It turned out neither of my fears was founded. First, there’s a lot of hockey in the greater Phoenix area if you’re willing to look for it. And it’s really good hockey, too. Second, I quickly realized after arriving that Arizona is one of those places where nobody actually was born or grew up. So everybody there who played hockey was from Kamloops or Edmonton or Calgary or Ottawa or Michigan or Wisconsin. One group with which I played was an over-50 crew in Scottsdale on The Shane Doan Rink at the Ice Den. Most NHL teams that visit the Arizona Coyotes practice there on their off-day and so it was that I found myself with 10 minutes alone with Connor McDavid on a Monday afternoon – good luck getting that in Toronto – then discovered there was a group of huffers and puffers that played every Wednesday afternoon.

Then I learned there was another group of younger guys – most of them much younger – who play at the Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe, the barn where Arizona State University plays. But you have to show up at least 45 minutes in advance and sign in early because they cut it off at 26 skaters and almost always have to turn guys away. That was clearly out of my league. It was strictly a matter of get the puck, pass the puck, go to the net, play a modicum of defense and try to stay out of the way. I had mixed success.

And it turns out, pick-up hockey in the desert is pretty much the same as it is anywhere else. The quality (or lack thereof) is about the same as you’d find in Toronto or Lethbridge. Like everywhere else, guys take seven-minute shifts and spend most of the 90 minutes busting each others’ chops. The last 30 minutes is pretty much a free-for-all of odd-man rushes and breakaways.

The over 50s was more my speed and demographic, which consisted of a bunch of guys who spend the winter there playing hockey and golf, which coincides with them avoiding the worst part of the northern winters. “Whenever anyone asks me what it’s like down here, I tell them, ‘I hate it here and tell that to all your friends, too,’ ” one of the skaters said. “We’re trying to keep this place a secret. It used to be a place for guys from western Canada, but now we have guys from Toronto showing up.”

It was a blast skating on The Shane Doan Rink, which just happens to be where Jake DeBrusk of the Boston Bruins took his first steps on skates while his father, Louie, was playing for the Coyotes in the late 1990s (although it wasn’t named for Doan at the time). “It was a Learn-to-Skate program,” Louie recalled, “and Jake showed up for the first session in full equipment.”

Generally speaking, when you play pick-up hockey with someone, you don’t bother to learn much beyond his first name. I made an exception with 22-year-old Jake Dobrenz from Cumberland, R.I. and 19-year-old Alex Altman from Irvine, Calif., largely because they were so young and so fast and so dominant and I wanted to find out what two gifted young guys were doing playing pick-up hockey in Tempe on a Thursday afternoon.

It turns out they play club hockey at Arizona State. Did you know that aside from their nationally ranked Division I team, Arizona State has club teams in Division I, II and III? I didn’t either. Who knew? It turns out ASU is a hub of hockey and if they ever do get around to building that 5,000-seat, $105-million hockey facility, you might as well hand them the national championship every other year or so. Because once they get a northern kid down there on a recruitment trip in the middle of the winter, he won’t want to leave. Mario Lemieux’s kid plays on the varsity team. Scott Niedermayer’s and Doan’s sons will likely be suiting up for ASU in the next couple of years.

Jake and Alex both play Division II club hockey, which kind of amazed me given their talent level. “I actually moved here for golf,” said Jake, a senior in the business program. “I wanted to play college golf. I hadn’t played hockey for three years and just wanted to get back into it. I was pretty rusty at the beginning.”

“I came here to play hockey, to be quite honest,” said Alex, a sophomore in sports business management who was once a defense partner on the Anaheim Jr. Ducks with Philadelphia Flyers 2019 first-rounder Cam York. “A lot of guys think they can play D1, but now there are too many guys who think they can play D1. I knew I was going to play club hockey the whole time, so I figured I would do that and get an education.”

Imagine that. A kid from California comes to Arizona to play hockey. What a country. And what a game. And as an added bonus, if you buy a Diet Coke at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, you get free refills. True story.

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