A FORMER street hockey player as a child in Towson, Todd Weber is now, by day, a three-piece-suited computer programmer. But several nights each week, Weber, the son of Washington Capitals radio announcer Ron Weber, trades his flow charts skates and a stick, and plays center for the Comets.
Marcie Mullins of Arlington used to watch the Washington Capitals and wonder why women couldn't play hockey. Five years later, she's the left wing and captain of her Lasers team. She even met her husband, Jeff, the team goalie, in hockey school.
Two years ago, David Lindoerfer of Derwood had never played ice hockey. Now in his first season out of rookie league, he's a valued left winger on the Wizards and recently scored his team's only goal in a 6-1 loss to the Comets.
Riding the crest of America's growing infatuation with professional ice hockey, amateur players are taking to the ice in record numbers. Around Washington, more than 500 players are playing in one league alone, and others operated by local recreational departments also report growing numbers -- all despite the fact that playing ice hockey does not come cheap. (The cost of outfitting a new player can reach $300 for pads, pants, jersey, socks, helmet and skates. Add in the cost of precious ice time, made more expensive by the relative scarcity of ice rinks in this area, plus referees' pay and assorted other costs, and first-year expenses for a new player can exceed $500.)
Yet for those badly bitten by the hockey bug, price is an afterthought when the opportunity to mimic Bobby Carpenter or Mike Bossy is involved.
For five years during the mid- '70s, Ashley Root of Rockville watched helplessly as the Washington Capitals breathed new meaning into the word pathetic. He would grab the armrests of his seat in a deathgrip, his knuckles white from the opening faceoff through each bitter end. Not only hoarse from exhorting his team, he was also physically drained from the tension and vicarious suffering of repeated defeat.
Eventually, Root's frustration would spill over into cliche: "Can't anybody play this game?" he would mutter as he drove home along the Beltway each night. Yes, of course, he would answer himself -- anyone could play this game. And if pro players like the Caps could face themselves and still lace up their skates despite the near certainty of yet another defeat, why couldn't he and his soulmates take to the ice?
Such was the seed of the idea that in 1978 became the National Novice Hockey League -- changed last year to the National Novice Hockey Association after the professional National Hockey League cried foul -- and today there are more than 200 NNHA teams across the country, including 26 in Maryland and Virginia.
Amateur hockey has been played around the country for years, even in this area, but the teams, usually associated with local recreation departments, have most often drawn from those who've played the game since school days. The NNHA, by contrast, seeks out non-skaters who curse their ill-spent childhood, plus the fallen-away street hockey buffs or older players who're still legends in their own minds. Yet, after the NNHA's intense eight-week introductory course and an eight-game rookie-league baptism by fire, these has-beens and never-weres are ready to join teams, some of whom have players from the league's first season seven years ago.
Prospective players who've played hockey before can skip the standard NNHA hockey school and try out for an advanced team. But don't try sandbagging, because the word of league administrator Mike Shannon is final. Shannon also assigns players to teams to keep play as competitive and balanced as possible. And if you're too good, you can't play.
"This is a recreational league where everyone wants to have fun and has to be able to go to work in the morning," says Shannon, who gladly practices for 21/2 hours on Fridays -- starting at 11:30 p.m. -- in pursuit of a better game. "This is basically a non-checking league. Our rules stipulate that players may only check (run into each other) when going for the puck, but there's still more than enough contact out there for those so inclined.
"We require that each player wear a league-issued helmet with a facemask at all times. And we don't tolerate any fighting. People play at this level to have fun, and beginners don't need any help falling down, so a game misconduct penalty for fighting gets an automatic two-game suspension and two of those within 12 months and you're out."
Despite these caveats, don't mistake this for church-league volleyball.
"Watching how easy the professional teams make hockey look is very deceptive," says Lindoerfer. "Skating backwards, handling the stick, learning how and when to shoot and even how to stop or fall safely are very difficult to learn."
Yet for many the lure of the ice and the action of 21 regular-season games and the chance of national playoffs in Los Angeles make the risk of injury (bumps and bruises are expected, broken bones a possibility) seem worthwhile. Even the inconvenience of 6 a.m. or midnight practices and away games from Columbia to Woodbridge seem acceptable for the chance to dress in gaudy oversized jerseys and lift a slap shot past some frozen goalie.
While the big-time nature of the NNHA attracts many, some amateur players find rec leagues more comfortable.
"Our biggest difference is in philosophy," says Ed Bednarz, administrator of the Montgomery Men's Hockey League, one of a number of other amateur leagues in the area. "In our recreational division, players know to back off if they're more talented than their opponent. Winning isn't the be-all and end-all. We're just out to have fun."
The sport requires commitment and, even with regular line changes, a dedication to physical conditioning. But the primary thrill of adult amatuer hockey involves being there, on the ice.
"It takes some real athletic skills and good wind to play hockey, but simply being able to play is the real payoff," says Mullins. "And you can imagine how much I enjoyed it when I was new in the league and took my helmet off after games, and some of the men I'd just played against and beaten found out I was a woman." GETTING ON ICE
Whether you're a frustrated fanatic who can't understand why you've never been drafted by the NHL or an eager beginner with breakaway dreams, there are local amateur hockey leagues that fit your skill level and competitive juices. Here's a sample of where you can test your soul on ice:
NATIONAL NOVICE HOCKEY ASSOCIATION -- The eight-week beginner's school has already started, but there're still a few openings for new players (provided they're not too good). This is a non-checking league. Games every night of the week at rinks throughout the area; local, regional and national playoffs. Cost: $248 per season; players provide their own equipment. 251- 0992.
MONTGOMERY MEN'S HOCKEY LEAGUE -- Games played at Wheaton and Cabin John ice rinks through late March. Non-checking. Players pay about $175 and buy their own equipment. Season is 23 games, plus playoffs. The league has 10 teams in two divisions (competitive and senior). Write to the MMHL c/o Ed Bednarz, 6913 Old Stage Road, Rockville MD 20852.
FAIRFAX HOCKEY LEAGUE -- Two new teams are being added to Fairfax's men's non- checking league on Dec. 1; beginners and experienced players welcome. It's $200 per player for the 21-game season; you provide equipment. There's a mandatory evaluation clinic at the Fairfax Ice Arena (where all games are played) on Tuesdays at 10:45 p.m., before players are assigned to a team. Call Henry Weisiger at 323-1132.
CHESAPEAKE HOCKEY LEAGUE -- The area's roughest, toughest league also draws some of the best players. Games are played at Fort Dupont, where the Capitals practice. (A few ex-Caps also play in this league.) This six- team league is only for serious, experienced, fully-equipped players who relish a physical, hard-checking style of play. The cost is $100 for a 20-game season plus playoffs. All games are at Fort Dupont, as are tryouts on Mondays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m.
WASHINGTON RED COATS -- This women's team starts its season Dec. 7 against teams from Long Island, Philadelphia, Newark and Wilmington. Practices and home games are held at Fort Dupont Ice Rink in Southeast; all games are on weekends. The season costs $150 for 16 games; players provide their own equipment. Beginners welcome, but basic skating skills are required. Call Rosemary Warren at 224-3344.