On ice at Soldier Field, ‘It’s like you’re a kid again’
By BEN STRAUSS in the New York Times*
CHICAGO — The weather was picturesque for hockey at Soldier Field on Friday. Snow fell on a clear and cold winter night on the shore of Lake Michigan. The rest of the scene was less conventional. Two teams made up of adult recreational league players, some who only recently learned the sport, skated before more than 60,000 empty seats.
With ice laid over the Soldier Field turf for the first time in at least 60 years, in preparation for a college hockey doubleheader on Feb. 17, the Chicago Outdoor Hockey League helped to begin more than two weeks of hockey festivities. Friday night’s hockey game was thought to have been the first played at Soldier Field, according to the organizers of the event.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” said Tom Walsh, 30, who took up the sport two years ago and skated Friday. “I think I’m a little embarrassed that some of us are playing this special game, given our skill. We’re lucky to be here.”
Friday’s honour is the highlight of the brief existence of the C.O.H.L., a unisex adult hockey league that caters to players and novices of all skill levels. Sean Campbell founded the league last winter as a way to bring the thrill of pond hockey he played in his youth to adults around Chicago.
“The open air and the open atmosphere is an entirely different feel,” Campbell said. “It’s like you can breathe more. It’s like you’re a kid again.”
Campbell, a 35-year-old Chicago native who works in information technology, created an online resource for pickup hockey games after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010. He said interest in hockey had been on the rise since, and when he found out two new outdoor rinks were opening last winter, he started the league.
A year ago, the league had 16 teams and 200 players. This year, it expanded to 26 teams and 368 players. Participants range from 18 to 68. There are also now 12 women, up from 6 a year ago.
“They don’t treat me any different,” said Mary Mycyk, 37, and a participant in Friday’s game. “And if they ever did run me into the boards, my teammates would be looking out for me.”
Each team had four lines, carefully selected to keep the action fair and competitive.
To participate in Friday’s game, players were voted in by their peers, and all skill levels were represented. Each team had four lines, carefully selected to keep the action fair and competitive.
The game followed an opening ceremony for the rink and a Chicago Blackhawks charity event, and did not begin until after 10 p.m. Temperatures hovered just above single digits. Players’ friends and families watched from metal benches next to the rink, bundled in sleeping bags and extra layers, and they held mugs of hot chocolate in their hands, giving the evening a quaint, small-town feel, even as the stadium rose around the ice with the lights from the downtown skyline beyond.
“This is totally awesome,” Mycyk said. “I’ve been a Bears fan all my life, came to a lot of games as a kid, so it doesn’t get much better than this.”
By the end of the night, the game yielded nine goals, countless smiles and one jealous Hall of Famer.
“I would have loved to play here,” said Tony Esposito, the former Blackhawks goalie who played in the N.H.L. from 1968-84. “If you would have said 20 years ago that you’d have people skating around at Soldier Field, they would have said you were crazy.”
A version of this article appeared in print on February 3, 2013, on page SP11 of the New York edition with the headline: On Ice at Soldier Field, ‘It’s Like You’re a Kid Again’ .