Seriously fun

NORTHBROOK, Ill. -- After two hours, they are spent.

More like drenched, actually, the extent of their labor apparent by the cascade of sweat pouring off their faces and soaking their clothing. Also, by the stench emanating around them. Quiet banter rises just above the heavy breathing as they drop their sticks and peel off their equipment -- the shin guards, the gloves, the eye gear, assorted braces.

It could be any locker room in America after a hard-fought competition. It could be the NHL. But it is not.

It is the hallway of the Northbrook Leisure center, outside a tiny gym on an otherwise tranquil Sunday morning in September. And these are middle-aged men -- husbands, fathers, professionals -- beating hell out of one another and loving it.

They are friends who were bored 15 years ago at their daddy-daughter group meetings, spotted a bucket of plastic floor hockey sticks and hatched an idea that would take root and endure.

They are not unique in that they play pickup. Maybe not even in that they play pickup floor hockey. Maybe it is the intensity with which they compete and the obsessiveness with which they keep it going. Maybe it is the fact that despite requests from neighboring suburbs that they join a league or form their own, they have resisted.

They keep score, playing three or four games -- first team to seven -- in two hours. But they do not keep records or stats of any kind. They have their own set of rules but no officials. They play with roughly the same pool of about 35 guys, but never the same teams in each session. (They also play on Tuesday and Thursday nights.) And, oh yes, they have their own "pucks" and their own nets, which they've designed and manufactured with the high-level secrecy of a fraternity handshake.

If they weren't squeezed into this tiny gym, you figure they'd be meeting in someone's basement for a raucous game of knee hockey, as many of them did 30 years ago.

"It's like when you were a little kid and would pull together these pickup games, and we haven't forgotten about that," says 45-year-old Allen Shulman of Northbrook, one of the original players in the group and one of its de facto commissioners. "So for years, we've had these games with the same guys, same crew; we mix up the teams. It's a great workout, and we're all just addicted."

Some played hockey, ice or street, and some were high school athletes. But for others such as 45-year-old Northbrook resident Michael Cohen, another founding member who has played goalie for the past 15 years, these are his glory days.

"I didn't get to enjoy varsity sports like a lot of these guys," Cohen says. "But for me, when I first came out at 35, it was just like reliving a high school dream. When somebody says, 'Hey, great save,' it's like having everyone in the stands of a football game or a hockey rink screaming for you. And then you come out and you're a father and a husband and whatever you do for a living again."

They are lawyers, traders, builders, CPAs, dentists, a teacher, a rabbi and a two-time Tony Award winner.

"My biggest joy is being the winning goalie; winning a Tony is a close second," 52-year-old Deerfield resident Doug Meyer says, only half-jokingly.

Meyer, known as "Douger" to his hockey buddies, is a financial adviser and producer of the award-winning "Hairspray" and "The Producers" as well as "Legally Blonde." He's currently on injured reserve awaiting back surgery. But he began playing 10 years ago when he was introduced to the group by a friend and soon was reacquainted with childhood pal, 51-year-old Ron Zelikow of Northbrook.

"We used to play in his basement," Meyer says. "And the first time out, he's telling someone on his team, 'You can beat him low to the stick side.' I'm like, 'Ron, you scouted me 35 years ago.'"

They are nothing if not serious about their craft.

"If you talk to our wives, they'll roll their eyes, but they'll also say it's been good for all of us," Shulman says.

Shulman's wife, Debby, agrees that she and many of the wives believe it is good for their husbands' physical and emotional well-being. "But we say it laughing," she says. "There is absolutely no aspect of the game that we do not chuckle at. There's the day the teams are e-mailed out, so of course there has to be discussion of the teams – 'Did you get the team? What do you think of the team?' – and then getting psyched up about the team. There is so much e-mail banter, it's amazing any of these men can hold full-time jobs."

After the game, it doesn't stop. "They can break down a single play for days and days," Debby says. "They like to relive it. That's when the wives start to laugh. There are Bears postgame shows that haven't rehashed as much of the game as these guys do."

Throughout the years, they have endured everything from stitches and broken noses, to thrown-out backs and ruptured Achilles tendons. "I have injuries I suffered 10 years ago that still bother me," John Pascal, a 48-year-old Northbrook resident, says with no small measure of pride.

Pascal's wife Penni is not quite so enthusiastic.

"Every Sunday, it's either ice packs on both of his knees or my good white sheets have bloodstains because of an open wound," she said. "Every week, it's either one or both."

They take special glee when a new player -- the younger, the better -- shows up for the first time looking skeptical.

"I walked into the leisure center for the first time and started giggling, 'This isn't hockey, this is like sixth-graders hitting the puck around,'" recalls 44-year-old Michael Foster of Northbrook, who has played with the group for seven years. "And afterward, I was exhausted. Completely exhausted."

Deerfield resident Michael Cohen, 41, who is called "NTG" (for Not The Goalie) to distinguish him from the other Michael Cohen, had played ice hockey before joining the group.

"I thought coming from Long Island with my hockey experience, I would come in and dominate these older guys, have some fun and then go home and tell my wife how many goals I scored," Cohen says. "After the first half hour, I was hoping it would be over."

And Foster and Cohen were two of the lucky ones.

"Oh yes, there's the initiation of the puke," Debby Shulman says, laughing. "Any newbie will puke. They predict it, wait for it, allow him to puke and then allow him to re-enter. It's a rite of passage."

Often, players simply will look to the sidelines and notice the newbie is missing.

"We do check on them," says Cohen the goalie. "They're usually too embarrassed to stay when they're about to die, so we look in the hallway, and then we check the bathroom to see if they're throwing up or left."

One scary incident that initially looked like a heart problem prompted the group to install a defibrillator and learn to use it, just in case.

They hip check in the corners, and yes, a few fights have been broken out, although almost always verbal and usually involving two of the oldest friends in the group.

"When we're out in the hallway getting our equipment on, it's all fun and games," Cohen the goalie says. "But once the ball drops, it's all testosterone."

And all with their own personally designed equipment, beginning with the ball that has been doctored so that it deadens the bounce and lessens the pain when it makes contact with someone.

"We inject fluid into them, but the formula can never be revealed," says 46-year-old Northbrook resident Bob Snyder, a longtime player.

Unhappy with the sturdiness and engineering of their nets, they also built their own in the fabricating shop behind the used-equipment business owned by Cohen the goalie, whose explanation of the process might interest NASA, and they'd like to have it trademarked.

They also have adapted their rules throughout the years to suit the gym and their personalities. One has them switching teams' goalies each game to "ease the pain" if one goalie is having an especially bad day. Another awards possession, in the case of a collision, to the team with the player who looks most hurt.

Of course, there are no refs.

"Sometimes self-policing has a calmer influence than structured refereeing," Snyder says. "That usually causes more problems than it's worth."

They have no interest in changing their routine, although once, remembers 43-year-old Northbrook resident Ron Lambert, the former goalie for his Glenbrook North High state championship hockey team, a couple of the former ice hockey players persuaded the others to try taking it to the rink, regardless of the fact that many couldn't skate.

"No one had a fun time," Lambert says. "It was pitiful."

So no, this is not about impressing anyone except each other. It's not about anything, after 14 years, other than hanging together with their buddies, competing and, for a couple of hours a week anyway, feeling like kids again. Just like in the basement.

"Men have basketball leagues, but these guys have been doing this for so many years, and they still really look forward to it," Debby Shulman says. "They blow off steam, burn calories and have a tremendous sense of camaraderie. It's a cult. They're bummed if they can't play. They need it, and I would never tell Allen to stop."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.