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Charles Schulz: hockey's late bloomer.


The World's Greatest Hockey Goalie trudged homeward after practice, hockey stick across his shoulder.

"Well, how was hockey practice?' Charlie Brown asked.

"I don't think the coach likes me,' the World's Greatest Hockey Goalie mused, as he stowed away his stick. "I asked him what position he wanted me to play.

"He told me to go stand in front of the Zamboni.'

The hockey fans in the audience got a chuckle out of Snoopy's face-off with Zamboni. Those who don't know anything about the game are still scratching their heads over who or what a Zamboni is. And the way the game is growing nationwide, the chucklers may now outnumber the scratchers.

One of the chucklers is "Peanuts' creator Charles Schulz himself, the real power behind the World's Greatest Hockey Goalie. "The Zamboni,' Schulz says laughing, "is that huge machine that cleans and resurfaces the ice.'

The Zambonis around the country are getting an overtime workout from the hundreds of thousands of amateur and novice hockey players now taking to the ice. Each knows that the chances of scoring a hat trick against the Edmonton Oilers are as remote as those of belting the Series-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth, or of taking the overtime kickoff all the way back for a Super Bowl victory. But the legions of new hockey players--some who have never skated before, and many of them professional adults long past the lean, mean rookie years--are not deterred. For the first time, they have the chance to act out some of those childhood fantasies, to capture, however vicariously, the thrill those American kids felt in their heart-stopping win over the Russian pros at Lake Placid in 1980.

There really is nothing new about amateur hockey in America. The nonprofessional aspect of the sport goes back to 1896, when the first amateur league was formed only three years after the game was introduced in the United States. Today, there may be as many as 250,000 amateurs taking to the ice in organized amateur competition, ranging from the under-12 Pee Wee classification to adults of near-pro caliber who go at one another with all the intensity of Stanley Cup finalists.

What is new, however, is the character of today's amateur players. Many are older than one would normally expect in an action sport that demands blazing speed; some are novices to the point of ineptness, which, at some rinks, is more virtue than vice. Quite often, they are long-time hockey fans who come to the game through the involvement of their children in youth leagues or school teams; for others, particularly a growing number of white-collar professionals concerned with physical fitness, hockey has become a welcome winter alternative to summer's company softball team.

A notable figure in amateur hockey is Schulz. His love of sports, especially baseball, football, and hockey, frequently shows up in the adventures of Charlie Brown and in the misadventures of Snoopy.

This past summer Schulz was inducted into the Old-Timers' Hockey Hall of Fame. Now in his 60s, Schulz has inspired other seniors to strap on the skates and to go out and revive a dream or two. But his contribution to amateur hockey has gone far beyond the inspirational--each July, Schulz hosts Snoopy's Senior World Hockey Tournament near his home in Santa Rosa, California, at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, which he built himself after the only rink in the area closed. "My wife and I felt it was unfortunate the people around here would be deprived of an arena, so we built it for the community,' Schulz says. "Now the guys around here have the tremendous advantage of playing in the world's most beautiful arena at a convenient time and very inexpensively.'

Every summer, more of Schulz' "guys' come from all over the country to compete in the senior tournament. Last July, more than 40 teams of graybeards came to skate. "There are a lot of senior tournaments around the country, but those who come here tell us this is the best,' Schulz continues. "Canada has a well-organized old-timers' hockey program, but the United States doesn't. Yet.'

Growing up in the winterland of Saint Paul, Minnesota, Schulz, exposed to the game at an early age, found there were few places to pick up the fundamentals or to develop budding skills. "I know from personal experience there weren't any places back then for people to play who are my age now,' he says. "There were no arenas to play in; some outdoor rinks, of course, but nothing was organized. The absence of lights, the weather--a lot of factors prevented it.'

Not so today with his own Redwood Empire rink. "We have hockey three nights a week,' Schulz explains. "The younger and better players all play on Thursdays; those of us in senior hockey and a few of the other guys play on Tuesdays, and the leftovers play on Wednesdays.

"The senior game is for those over 40. The oldest has been 60, but next year we'll go over the 65-year barrier. There are a lot of players 65 and older who are tired of chasing those 50-year-old kids around.

"We don't have any leagues,' Schulz adds. "We discovered that if you start organizing teams and leagues, people begin to take it too seriously.'

On the other hand, organizing teams and leagues is precisely the business of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States (AHAUS). Established in 1937 as the national governing body for amateur hockey, the organization is now based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Its spokesman, Mike Schroeder, says its mission "is to build a well-organized youth sports program for those interested in playing amateur hockey.'

The population of those interested in playing now numbers in the tens of thousands. To satisfy this growing passion for hockey, the AHAUS conducts national championship competition in 12 age categories, ranging from Pee Wee (under 12) to Senior (over 30) for both sexes.

The AHAUS also organizes and conducts the hockeycompetition phase of the National Sports Festival, a tenday event that's held in the summers of non-Olympic years. It showcases the top 80 American amateur hockey players as part of the ongoing selection process in determining the U.S. Oympic hockey team. In addition, the AHAUS currently prepares teams for four different world-championship tournaments --the Olympic Winter Games, the World Championships, the World Junior Championships, and the Canada Cup.

But in spite of those thousands of players involved in the AHAUS and other amateur hockey programs, the very nature of the sport has been a handicap hampering its Growth. Unlike basketball, baseball, or football, where a hoop nailed to a garage door or just about any vacant lot or backyard can make do, hockey requires a specific environment and rather elaborate equipment just to get started. (When was the last time that you ever heard about a pickup, sandlot hockey game?)

Consequently, a vast number of dedicated, but frustrated, adult hockey fans are culturally deprived because they lack the little-league experiences so common to baseball and to football. And that, frustrated hockey fans, is exactly why the National Novice Hockey Association (NNHA) was invented.

In 1979, Ashley Root, a communications executive in Washington, D.C., was one of those frustrated fans. After watching the game most of his life, Root decided he wanted to learn to play but quickly discovered there were few, if any, places for adults like him to get started. And just like that, Root had stumbled over the First Commandment of Entrepreneurship: Find a need and fill it. Within six weeks, by word of mouth and a few newspaper ads, he had 130 players divided into six teams ready to follow him onto the ice.

Roots' novice league almost immediately began to expand to other cities. This fall, the NNHA will field 195 teams and about 3,500 players in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego, Saint Louis, Boston, Chicago, Hartford, Philadelphia, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Detroit, and the New York-New Jersey megaplex. Those 3,500 players have one thing in common: Wayne Gretzkys they're not. But then, who is?

"If people have been playing any hockey at all, they're definitely too good for our league,' Steve Katz, the association's vide president, says.

"Most people in out leagues generally are hockey fans who've never had an opportunity to play, and most have a minimal amount of experience,' he continues. "Maybe half have been recreational skaters and a fourth might have played some hockey when they were kids, but the other fourth may have never even been on skates before.'

For those who qualify, the NNHA provides eight weeks of professionally supervised instruction before they skate in their first game. Designed to accommodate those with a desire to learn the game from the players' point of view--even if they've never skated before --the instructions include some basic skating, stick handling, shooting techniques, and some play strategies.

The emphasis on safety and the de-emphasis on the violence that so often mars professional hockey have been major factors in attracting the recreational players to NNHA ranks and rinks. Body checks and slap shots are illegal; they result in twominute penalties. Fighting can mean expulsion from the association. NNHA games consist of three periods of 15 minutes each (the pros play 20-minute periods), and all players must be completely outfitted with pads, helmet, and full-face cage mask.

"It's not a cheap sport to play,' Katz admits. ,"the equipment, the initial investment, can be pretty expensive, so we are attracting a lot of the white-collar crowd. We're offering the guy who sits around the desk all day something different in the way of exercise. We're attracting a lot of people who have been jogging without enjoying it, or who have joined a health club to lift weights because they know they need to keep in shape. We're offering something else that's pretty important, too: the chance to make a lot of fantasies come alive.'

Photo: The 250,000 amateur hockey players now going at each other in organized competition come in all sizes--from the under-12 Pee Wee classification to grownups acting out their childhood fantasies.

Photo: Charles Schulz' love affair with amateur hockey has inspired other seniors to strap on the old skates and revive a dream.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Ward, Bernie
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1986
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