Ashley Root is a young man who has known suffering. For years he was a fan of the Washington Capitals, which meant that when he went to a hockey game, he could expect to lose. One night in January of 1980 it looked as if the impossible was about to happen. The Caps were playing the Philadelphia Flyers, a team they had never beaten, and they had a lead late in the game. Alas, the proceedings ended in a tie, and Root recalls he "just about threw up."
Reflecting on it afterward, Root began to take a new view of his favorite sport—he got The Idea. "I realized my problem was that I wanted to play, not watch," he says. But in hockey as in most sports, there was no room for the adult who had suddenly developed the athlete's itch. Most amateur leagues cater to fading stars, sandlot junkies or enthusiastic near-pros who have been playing since they were six. If you don't know how to make a free throw, pivot on a double play or shoot on goal, you're out of luck. Don't come around here, buddy.
By way of explaining just what The Idea is, we cut quickly to an apartment in Los Angeles where Root and a friend, Steve Katz, sit at a table covered with paper and telephones. Behind them a bed is blanketed with more paper. Both men have harried looks: hair disheveled, ears raw from too much contact with the receiver, eyes slightly bloodshot. And with good reason. They are trying to evaluate hockey skill over the phone. Typical dialogue goes as follows:
"So you played some when you were 14. For six years? Yes.... O.K., where? Toronto? No, sorry. Thanks for the call."
"You're 23 now? Played six years ago...feel pretty good on skates, do you? Can you skate backward? I see.... That well! No, no. I'm sorry."
"Never played? You ever been on skates?...I see. Twice. Fell a lot? Ahhh. And how do you spell your name, sir? Yes, sir. Practice is Sunday night, 8:15."
This is the headquarters of the National Novice Hockey League, an organization devoted to participation by those who can hardly skate, much less shoot a puck. Root is the league's president; Katz is his national market developer, the man who helps Root continue the league's relentless search for inexperience and ineptness. In the NNHL all mistakes are forgiven, particularly the transgression of inexperience. Salvation lies not in ability but in training and enthusiasm. It's assumed you are a klutz, so if you turn out to be one, it doesn't matter: You get eight weeks of schooling before you're ever asked to fire a puck at a goalie. So when Root—who gave up a career in audio communications to run the league full time—puts little ads in the Los Angeles Times, the calls come pouring in. A lot of people out there are apparently eager to invest $168 a year in league membership and as much as $350 in equipment and then push themselves through embarrassment and physical discomfort just so they can get out of the bleachers and play.
Since the first six NNHL teams were formed in Washington, D.C. in 1980, the league has grown remarkably: 62 teams of 17 players each now compete weekly in three cities—Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco—and more teams are being formed all the time. By this fall the NNHL expects to have more than 100 teams playing in seven cities.
Los Angeles has the most teams, 27, divided into northern and southern conferences. There are 23 teams in Washington and 12 in San Francisco, and in both of those cities the NNHL operates much as it does in L.A.: New members are given their weeks of skating and game instruction, and then are divided by an administrator into teams that play an eight-game season among themselves. After that come playoffs, summer leagues and then preseason tournaments, so the league is active all year. Play is confined to each team's city thus far, though Root hopes someday to have intercity tournaments.
The yearning to participate seems to be contagious. "I was a musician for seven years," said Alison Wong, lacing up her skates one Sunday night at a rink outside L.A. "Now I'm a hockey player." Wong, a 23-year-old drummer, wore a knee-length sweater, jeans and a small gold ring in one nostril. "I'm one of those people who likes to have a ball, to get rowdy," she said, strutting off toward the ice. "Hockey grabbed me."