A League of Their Own
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
What has all its teeth, loves speed and excitement, and hasn't even stayed in a Nagano hotel room, let alone trashed one? Why the NIH Hockey Club, of course, a loose-knit co-ed gang of skating enthusiasts who have wangled ice time, by hook or by crook, at a variety of local rinks since "around 1973," says Dr. Pierre Henkart, who used to run the floating contests until injuries put his hockey career on ice. Nowadays, the R&W-sponsored club skates almost year round and has more people than it can accommodate, according to league codirector Guy Wassertzug, who, like most players in the league, isn't even an NIH'er.
Henkart, who came to NIH in 1971 and is now a section chief in NCI's Experimental Immunology Branch, said in the old days almost none of the few public rinks around town permitted hockey. The local parks authority "never allowed ice hockey at Cabin John or Wheaton (regional parks)," he said. "They were reserved mostly for figure skating. This is not an area that traditionally has had hockey as part of its history. There's always been the concern that people would get hurt.
"But that attitude has changed," he continued. "There are a lot more leagues now. The arrival of the Washington Capitals hockey team stimulated a lot of interest in the game locally."
In the early seventies, there were a handful of private rinks that allowed hockey, recall Henkart and his successor, Dr. Gary Murray, a Toronto native who still plays when his aching shoulders permit. "There was a half-size rink at Howard Johnson's, near the corner of Georgia Ave. and University Blvd.," reminisced Henkart. "And there was one at Tyson's Corner -- but now it's an auto dealership," said Murray. "Back then it was even hard to buy hockey equipment in the local sports stores," Henkart claimed.
The NIH club began, initially, as a county-run game, once a week. "A bunch of us from NIH got involved and kind of took rink time -- this was at Wheaton Regional Park," said Henkart. "We played Thursday nights from 10:30 to midnight. We held that slot until this year," when the games migrated to Cabin John Regional on alternate Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, sometimes beginning as early as 9:45 p.m.
The old league adhered roughly to the National Hockey League season, running from October through March. Then the NIH'ers found some rink time at Cabin John from April to August; thus year-round hockey was born.
"We're still juggling for better ice time at Cabin John," said league codirector Dr. Ed Ginns, chief of NIMH's Clinical Neuroscience Branch, who, like Henkart, grew up on Long Island and played intramural hockey at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Starting in May, the club can take over the ice at 9:15 p.m. "We're still relative newcomers there," Ginns conceded.
About 30 people play in the league, at a fee of $240 for a session spanning 5 months. "It works out to $11-$12 a night," said Ginns. "Usually about 20 or 25 show up, and we split up to balance ability and keep sides evenly matched. One team wears light-colored jerseys and the other wears dark shirts." The teams scrimmage in one long game lasting the 1 1/2-hour duration, adding and subtracting players in six-on-six shifts lasting 2-4 minutes. "Trades ensue if the sides aren't even," joked Murray. A typical night's end score might be 6-5, or 10-4, though sometimes no one has the energy to keep score, said Wassertzug. Only the goalies don't leave the ice on a regular basis.
There was a time when about half the league was NIH'ers, said Murray, but then interest on campus dropped off. "The better players gravitated to the better leagues that had sprung up," he said. Ginns says only five or so current players are NIH'ers, and the rest are friends harvested over the years.
Though the games lack referees, order is maintained by the codirectors, and by mutual understanding of the rules: no checking (bashing into one another to free the puck or stop a rush on goal) and minimal contact. Fighting is taboo. "The idea of fighting is a total misrepresentation of the game of hockey," insists Henkart. "This is a real game."
"We've had to boot a few folks," admitted Murray, recalling the one-night stand of an FBI agent who crashed into a player so hard the skater's helmet and glasses broke. "He was a cop and he was out there committing assault," he recalled indignantly.
Murray grew up playing hockey in Canada, but never played on a varsity team. It was always just for the fun of it. Same with Henkart, who was reared in Port Washington, N.Y., on Long Island, and played "whenever it got cold enough for pickup games. There's an excitement to hockey that you can't replace with anything else," he said.
"Being at NIH brought out the hockey in all of us," laughs Ginns. "It's an essential outlet," seconds Murray, a special expert in NINDS' Developmental and Metabolic Neurology Branch, which for years was the seed lab for the NIH Hockey Club; many early members either worked in or near it.
"In the olden days, wherever it hurt, that's where you bought equipment," recalls Ginns. Today, all players are still required to outfit themselves; helmets are mandatory and protective face cages are "strongly suggested," noted Wassertzug.
Though Murray, Ginns and Henkart happen to carry advanced degrees as well as hockey sticks, players hail from all sorts of professions and exhibit a wide range of skills, they said. There are a couple of NIH policemen, Brett Reese and James Kowal, who is well respected and also runs his own Sunday night scrimmage at Wheaton. There are administrators, physicians, technicians, postdocs, and folks from the Uniformed Services University across the Pike. There are, increasingly the men say, computer experts, salespeople and banking types, with cosmopolitan interests in sports. Women have always been welcome, though not many have played.
"The basic requirement is that you be able to skate safely," said Ginns. "We have players who are just about at varsity level," said Murray. "Some actual varsity," corrected Henkart. But most tend to be decent athletes who saw the game on television, liked it and wanted to try it out.
"It is dangerous if you don't have basic skating skills," warned Henkart, who has seen several players carried off the ice in his time. "Though it's a nonchecking league, people still wind up on the boards and on the ice," Ginns said.
Because the games rile up players' adrenaline so close to bedtime, it's hard to wind down afterward, Henkart said. "It's difficult to get to sleep before 2 a.m. on a game night."
While the league draws a puck-sized audience -- mostly wives and girlfriends, and that only since the games moved indoors -- its long-time adherents, though gray at the temple, are rink rats for life. Ginns still puts up flyers at the start of every new season, even though "it's a losing battle -- they get pulled down and the bulletin boards get swept clean." He says the league will soon have a Web page at the R&W site.
"It would be nice to get to the point where we have enough people to have two scrimmage teams," said Ginns. "What we need are volunteers to organize the league -- even nonplayers who want to do some administrative work."
"We're thinking about hiring some refs for a couple of games, to lend a little authenticity and structure," said Wassertzug, who says he began playing at 18 or 19, when his parents couldn't forbid him to play any more. "But it takes a lot of energy to run a league -- that's why Ed and I decided to split the load."
Wassertzug, who has been playing in the NIH league for the past 4 years and runs his own computer company in Rockville, says the league is slowly becoming more competitive, with faster skaters, cleverer passing and more enjoyable evenings for all. "It doesn't lend itself to rank beginners anymore," he said. Though most players are in their mid-thirties, ages range from 22 to 55.
For more information on the league, send an email to email@example.com or call Ed Ginns, 496-0373.
Up to Top