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Chicago hockey players take it outside

League stays sharp while NHL cools its heels

  • Outdoor Ice Hockey, photographed at Warren Park (6601 North Western Avenue) on Friday, November 31, 2012.
Outdoor Ice Hockey, photographed at Warren Park (6601 North Western Avenue)… (Hilary Higgins/RedEye )
December 04, 2012|By Matt Lindner | For RedEye

On a 45-degree night in Rogers Park last week, Tom O'Connell laced up his skates and hopped on the ice, though you'll forgive him if he felt as though he stepped into a time machine.

"I started playing outdoor hockey when I was a youngster," the Des Plaines resident said. "That's all I ever played. That's what I grew up with, so there are a lot of great memories."

Indeed, there was a sort of "Sandlot" feel under the lights at Warren Park on opening night for the Chicago Outdoor Hockey League, the only outdoor recreational ice hockey league in the city.

"It adds a different dynamic, I think," said Kelly Torigoe, a Lakeview resident who is one of a handful of women in the league. "The ice is a lot different, the rinks are a lot different."

The slightly warmer temperatures clash with the ice and condensation clouds the plexiglass boards surrounding the rink, making it impossible to see what's going on inside.

The whir of metal cutting through the ice and the smack of the rubber puck hitting a wooden stick blade is an unmistakable soundtrack proving that even though the NHL isn't playing, hockey is alive and well in Chicago.

"We love the sport. We always will," COHL founder Sean Campbell said. "The NHL is just one of many leagues that play hockey. There's plenty of hockey you can watch, college hockey, youth hockey—you can go to our local arenas and watch hockey."

The league enters its second season with nearly twice as many players and teams as it had in its first. Fees range from $250 for returning players to $275 for new players, and games are played from Fridays through Sundays on rinks in Chicago, Niles and Cicero.

"It's a lot to keep up with, but it's a good thing," Campbell said. "We sold out our first year at about 230 players last year; this year we have 368. We went from 16 teams to 26 teams in a year."

Campbell, a 35-year-old South Loop resident, said putting the league together was like having a second full-time job. He's responsible for lining up the rinks, ordering jerseys, handling the marketing, even keeping score on opening night.

"27 from 17," the ref said, skating over to Campbell's perch just outside the boards on the other side of center ice.

"This is the fun part here," he said as he wrote down the tally in a scorebook and changed the number on the battery-powered scoreboard, which he bought with league funds. "I just got this. The other two rinks have built-in scoreboards. We keep track of stats too, which is what I'm doing right now. … It's another kind of plus. Players seem to like that. It's fun because they can show off with their family and friends, show that they scored a goal."

No. 27 in this case is Skokie's Raul Bravo, who went on to score four goals in his COHL debut.

"Man, there's nothing like playing outside," he said after his game, which ended in a 5-5 tie. "I play hockey indoors all season but once it comes time for the pond, there's nothing like it, nothing like it at all, especially in Chicago."

Bravo, who found out about the league by word of mouth, said the NHL lockout may have contributed to the league's success in Year 2.

"It keeps more guys playing," said Bravo, 29. "I know some guys, they want to watch the Hawks all the time, but if you can get out there at least once a week, why not?"

So what's different about the outdoor game? Depends on whom you ask.

"Goalies tell me their vision is very different when they play outside because they see everything; it's very wide open," Campbell said. "It's very different than when you're in that enclosed space when you can concentrate a little bit."

"You've really gotta be a little bit more steady with the puck," Bravo added. "You can't just dangle with it too much because it'll jump on you."

Fueling interest in the league this season is the fact that its all-star game will be played at Soldier Field during the week of the inaugural Hockey City Classic. Campbell said that came about after he met with a representative from Intersport, which is organizing events around the Classic.

"We are the only outdoor hockey league in Chicago and they're having an outdoor hockey league event, and I felt like that was perfect and he agreed, so he set us up with our all-star game," he said. "People have actually been coming forward a lot lately, especially with the Soldier Field stuff."

Campbell's passion runs deeper than hockey, though. While he says he loves nothing more than strapping up his skates and hitting the ice, he's hoping to eventually use his league to introduce the league to a younger audience.

"The more I can help grow the sport here, we can put more into some of these rinks so things like this can happen more often," he said.

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.

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