As a teenager, Joe Mohrfeld played hockey against Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the famed Minnesota boarding school that counts NHL superstars Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews as alumni.
“They destroyed us,” he tells me before jumping the boards. “Especially on their ice.”
On this night, 18 years later, and on this ice, tucked into the back end of an Austin, Texas, strip mall, the hockey is not quite as good. Author Don Gillmor’s observation that hockey’s beautiful geometry is never more obvious than when it doesn’t work is on display as passes miss their mark and shots fly wide.
The rink itself smells stale, like freezer burn.
A sallow patina has jaundiced patches of the walls like armpits on an old white T-shirt. Despite this, players come and go with an evident pride of place. It’s late on a weeknight, but the parking lot hosts a dozen players whose own games ended one, two, even three hours ago.
Inside, Mohrfeld, 32, tallies two goals for his team, dubbed the Junior Ehs, but his on-ice contributions are secondary: Tonight the acclaimed former head brewer at Odell Brewing Co. and current director of brewing at Pinthouse Pizza Brewpub has beer duty.
“We don’t draft Joe for the goals,” says Ehs co-captain Paul Eno, 46, whose team is so upbeat you’d never guess they lost. “We draft him for the growlers.”
This is beer league hockey, where it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s whether you brought the beer. In the U.S., more than 174,000 adults pay good money to play hockey at odd hours, where the refs are blind, scorekeepers can’t stay awake, and success is defined by the ability to play alongside your friends for as long as possible. It’s organized hockey in its purest form, unencumbered by money, skill, ambition, fans or advancement.
“I can’t imagine life without it,” says Steve Albers, 28, who is launching Center Ice Brewing Co., a hockey-themed craft brewery in St. Louis. He echoes a once-provincial refrain that can nowadays be heard coast to coast. Hockey is growing in improbable locales like Arizona and Virginia, while California hosts the country’s largest beer league and is second only to Michigan in terms of adults registered with USA Hockey.
Nicole Warner is one of 17,000 adult women in U.S. beer leagues. “I saw an ad on TV featuring women’s hockey and I thought, I want to play! Or at least try.” At 30, she enrolled in a learn-to-play program, and three years later she is a veteran of nearly 250 league games.
“Hockey people are family to me.” The back nameplate on her jersey reads GOONIE. “And you can’t beat the camaraderie.”
In fact for many, beer league offers a brief respite from the burdens of reality. “When I hit the ice,” says Warner, “I can’t help but be in a great mood, no matter the kind of day I’ve had.”
Beer comes first in the name, but not as much in the game. Governing bodies across North America forbid drunk hockey, and most players will tell you it’s a bad idea. “Before a game, one beer is not enough and three is too many,” says Nick Dean, 33, in a fading Russian accent. “Two is good.”
Alcohol policies differ from rink to rink. The luckiest leagues play in rinks with bars on site, like the Ice Forum in Duluth, Georgia. “After each game, the Breakaway Grill sends a complimentary pitcher to both teams,” says goalie Kevin Mizera, 44. When I sound impressed, he hedges. “It’s probably worked into league fees somehow.”
For many players, the quality held in highest esteem isn’t directly related to hockey or beer. At 85, Ontario’s Jan Loos hits the ice three times a week and holds the Guinness World Record for Oldest Ice Hockey Player—a title he may soon lose to Minnesota’s Mark Sertich, 94.
“Those guys inspire all of us,” says Brian Hill, 63, of Boston. “The goal isn’t to play until you’re too old, it’s to have played on your last day.”
The night after seeing Mohrfeld play, I’m at a crowded Pinthouse Pizza enjoying a Man O’ War IPA when I wonder what drew him back into hockey. “One afternoon he told me he was thinking about playing again,” says Daniel Conley, 29, a brewer at Pinthouse and former youth hockey player himself. “I said, ‘If you do it, I’ll do it.’”
When I press Mohrfeld for specifics, he balks. So I ask why more than half the beers on his tap wall are made by competitors—Hops & Grain, Austin Beerworks, Odell, among others.
“I don’t see it like that,” he says. “I look up there, I see my friends’ beers. Craft brewing isn’t about fame or making tons of money, it’s about making great beer and being part of a community.”
I see an opening. “Kinda like beer league, right?” He and Conley exchange a look. “Not really.”
Oh well. It was worth a shot.