It’s Saturday night at Virgil’s Centennial Arena, and the Ducks are facing the Bruins for the honour of hosting the GHL’s Halloween Cup.
Rumour had it the Bruins would be in disguise for the game, attaching floppy dog ears to their helmets and calling themselves the “Duck Hunt” team. To thwart them, the Ducks x-ed out the logos on their jersey fronts and donned disguises of their own on their helmets.
It was all fun and games, par for the course in a league designed for just those two things.
The GHL has more than 400 participants this year, all appreciative to be back on the ice after a year off during the pandemic. Co-ed games are held at different skill levels three nights a week during the winter.
Friday’s action at the Ridley Arena sees a mixed skills division, composed of players with different abilities, in action. The scene shifts to Virgil on Saturday, with the minor division focusing on true beginners to the game, and the major division allowing more experienced players to take the ice. The more skilled players skate Sundays in the GHL’s pro division, also at Virgil.
Kim Breakspeare of the Bruins got the bug to play hockey while managing her daughter Carley’s minor hockey team.
“As manager, I was allowed to go on the ice,” she explains. “I just fell in love with it.”
Before joining the GHL last year, Breakspeare had never actually played hockey. She joined for the first time when the league restarted last fall, and she and her teammates got about three games in before everything was shut down again.
On the ice Saturday, she showed some confidence in her skating, something she attributes to her experience roller blading. There was one incident during the game when she wound up in an on-ice tussle with a Ducks player. She admits, though, the two had actually collided and were just trying to keep each other from falling down.
That tussle aside, she says her skating has improved. “I can stop a lot better, it’s becoming more natural. I’m trying to do my crossovers. I’m trying to work on all that stuff as I go. It’s getting there.”
She sells herself a bit short here. Breakspeare actually scored the fourth Bruins goal, situating herself perfectly in front of the Ducks net to slip her shot past their goalie. Playing on the blue line, the mother of two girls had a number of other chances to score through the game.
The kitchen designer says her family is very supportive of her hockey endeavours, though they did have to adjust to having a second duffel bag full of smelly equipment stinking up their Niagara-on-the-Lake garage.
Her husband Mark, hailing originally from Jamaica, has never played the game.
“As he puts it, ice is for his drink,” she says, “not to be skated on.”
Breakspeare’s teammate Diego Macias of St. Catharines grew up in Mexico, where hockey is certainly not a part of everyday life.
“I had never held a stick,” he confirms. “I’ve been on the ice maybe twice in my life, once on a pond when I first got to Canada when I was 19, and the second time on the Rideau Canal. I think I was on the ice for five minutes and then I found the beavertails stand and I stopped skating.”
The 38-year-old was convinced to sign up to play by a friend who was also relatively new to the game. He eagerly looks forward to Saturday nights this year.
“I love the league, I love that everybody is friendly,” Macias says. “They accepted me right away, everybody is encouraging. I didn’t know how to skate, I didn’t know how to stop. They never got frustrated with me. They gave me the puck, they helped me. It’s a welcoming environment.”
Indeed, during the game Saturday, Bruins manager Billy Matson pointed out a raw new recruit on the Ducks. He urged his teammates to give her space and help her out on the ice.
“That’s the GHL spirit,” Matson tells The Local. “You recognize some of the new players. She’s brand new to the league this year. We accept all skill levels. I remember what it was like my first year. It’s very respectful just to give some of those players some space.”
Matson has been playing in the GHL for eight years, following his wife Tina who began a year earlier. He had never played organized hockey before pulling a GHL jersey over his head.
Referees for the games are also players in the league, volunteering their time to officiate. Statistics are compiled and players receive more points for an assist than they do a goal, in an attempt to promote passing the puck.
Standings are also kept, and league champions are crowned annually, but all teams make the round-robin style playoffs despite their regular season record.
“There’s a banquet at the end of the year,” Matson says. “The league gives out some awards. Sportsmanship, team MVPs, Spirit awards. It’s a lot of fun.”
“It’s very much a social league,” Matson continues. “There’s a social convenor. Next Saturday there’s about 15 of us gathering to give blood. We help out with different charities. We do toy drives too.”
Family members from both teams sat in the stands Saturday blowing duck whistles, one side to cheer their team on, the other to poke fun at their opponent. The polite calls of “sorry” and “excuse me” rang up from the ice as players from both teams helped and supported each other.
The “Duck Hunt” Bruins came out on top Saturday, taking a 4-2 victory after falling behind 2-0
earlier. They proudly toted the inflatable cup back to their dressing room.
Then it was off to Silk’s for both teams, continuing the social aspect that is a huge part of the GHL every week.