Stop by the social hour that passes for Friday morning brunch following the games of the Blades and Breakfast Hockey Club, and you can't imagine the mayhem that took place moments before. Players fresh from a fast skate and quicker shower grab a bite and a jolt of caffeine before heading to work. Jokes and good-natured jabs fill the lobby between the twin rinks of Hockeytown in Saugus, Massachusetts. You can't even tell which guys are teammates, or that most of them spent the previous hour beating the stuffing out of each other. It's the best of all hockey worlds.
"Anybody who plays hockey knows it's a way of life," says Bill Osbahr, one of the founding members of the BBHC. "You walk into a rink, it's an automatic feeling. As smelly and rotten as the locker rooms are, it's a great place to be. I think everybody that goes there has that same sentiment. They're guys who think 'This is a slice of heaven at the end of the week.'"
How do you describe that slice of heaven? Take bits from Bull Durham, Slapshot and The Man Show (minus the Juggies), toss in a dose of sophomoric wit from Animal House, and stir vigorously. The result is a raucous league of 60 fun-loving puckheads who connect for 45 Friday mornings each year. The common denominator is a love of the game, and the quest for the coveted Coffee Cup. Outside, pick-up trucks are parked alongside BMWs. Inside, construction workers and cops play alongside CEOs and legal eagles. The games are spirited, even feisty affairs. Checking is supposedly not allowed, but there's plenty of contact. Refs are fair game too. After a recent bout, one combatant told referee Mike Paynter "Hey Mike, good game. But we still hate you."
Paynter shot back: "That's OK. You still stink."
"Sometimes I question my intelligence when I'm leaving the house at 5:30 on a snowy morning," says Dan Santenello, a stockbroker and Swampscott selectman who captained the Brown University squad in 1981. "But once you get there, and see the guys, everything's great."
"The thing that's unique to this league is the camaraderie," says Rick Murphy, who played on a line with NHL referee Paul Stewart while both attended the University of Pennsylvania.
Rest assured, this is no ordinary hockey league. The BBHC grew out of the Hockey Academy, after Bob Talbert tired of the bureaucracy and formed a four-team league of his own, called Icetime. The concept was simple – four teams playing weekly morning matches side-by-side (with breakfast afterwards), and each 13-game season capped by a 2-game playoff to crown a champion. In January, 1998, Icetime changed hands to a group organized by Rick Breed, Bill Osbahr, Rick Armand, Al Peterson, and Dave Robinson. A top-notch web site was added to the menu, and the BBHC was born. Breed, a lawyer specializing in estate planning, established the BBHC as a non-profit athletic social club. It fits the bill on both counts - social and athletic.
"That's what sets this league apart," says Tripp Talbot, son of the Icetime founder and a BBHC regular. "It's run by the players, not some corporation."
"Why else would guys get up at 6 in the morning, except for hockey and food? Hence, Blades and Breakfast," says Dave "Beefcake" Gardner, who officiates games, operates the league web site, and, together with his wife Sharon "Fluff" Gardner, serves up a lip-smacking breakfast. "That's what makes it fun."
"Fun" is also an essential element of the BBHC web site (www.bladesandbreakfast.com), which lists rosters, standings and schedule. Gardner has full editorial license to post his own running commentary, including fictitious interviews and other hilarious features. He creates team names each season, keeps a running "Hot" and "Cold" list (expanded last year to showcase the "Gods" and "Clods" from each week), and produces sidesplitting game summaries, complete with semi-action photos. Gardner welcomes input, but if the submissions are deemed too dull, he just makes it up.
"The web site extends the league from just a Friday morning get-together," says Breed. "It bridges the gap from week to week."
The web site also includes an e-mail "Forum" that boasts more verbal sucker punches and counter-punches than any fisticuffs dished out by Slapshot's Hanson Brothers. Bold game predictions are sandwiched between breakfast requests and taunts of bad intentions. "Right now, there's a lot of fat jokes going around," says Peterson, noting that the average player age is inching toward 40. Armand says all the banter is purely for entertainment's sake, though Gardner admits the postings can be misunderstood. "If you're not in the league, you might not get the sense of humor we have," says Beef, adding he's heard from irate wives, girlfriends, even moms, regarding comments made about a loved one.
"It's part of the tradition, to poke a little fun at each other," says Breed, whose name is immortalized in the Breed-Lynch-Peterson Classic, otherwise known as the league's consolation game. "No one takes it too seriously."
Parity, however, is taken very seriously. After each season, every player goes back into the pool, a new draft is held, and four new teams - drawn from the same player pool - take to the ice for the next season. "What I really like about this league is that they take all the talent and, at the draft, they divide it up and try to create four equal teams," says Gardner. "I quit playing ice hockey because I got into leagues where I was playing guys who were far better than me, and teams that were far better than ours, and we'd be losing 7-2 in the first period, and it would just get worse from there. It's nice to know that they try to create fair teams, so you're not going to get spanked every week."
Still, the draft has its own fireworks. Peterson accuses Armand of stacking his teams by plying his general manager counterparts with alcohol during draft night, "while he's sitting there sipping soda water." Osbahr, another GM, describes Armand as "a cold, calculating, intelligent jerk. He's such a great guy, but I wouldn't want to play cards against him." In response, Armand simply says his opponents are confusing draft skills with superior coaching. "I don't get any joy out of stacking a team and winning it all," he says. "Rick, Al, Bill and I spend a lot of team trying to balance the teams."
And, in those rare moments when players talk seriously, they agree that the BBHC board has found the right mix. In fact, in the past four years, the league claims a 90 percent retention rate among players. Everyone knows one another, and most are good friends. "What sets the BBHC apart is consistent, good hockey, with guys from different walks of life, but who all have a lot of fun playing hockey together," says Breed. "It sounds corny, but you skate hard on the ice, and you want to win, but at breakfast, you forget about all that."
"When I was 20, I wished I could play at 40, but wasn't betting on it," says Osbahr, 41. "Now I want to play until I'm 65. I've made a lot of friends, and played a lot of good hockey. I've had more fun playing this level of hockey than anything else."
"We see the big picture," adds Armand. "We understand that this is Friday morning hockey. It isn't one of those nighttime leagues where you're putting yourself at risk. Over the years, those people have just dropped out of the league. The guys who want to be friends with each other and play competitive hockey have stuck around. It's all about respect. You respect the players, the league, the whole thing. That's hockey."
That's the BBHC.