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No-Ice Hockey

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On the day of the game, Mark DeCamilli doesn't eat. He doesn't drink. He watches a little TV and thinks about the game. "I start thinking about the game in the morning," he says. "I don't get really excited, but I'm thinking. I don't eat 'cause that makes me bloated. You want to be light on the day of the game."

DeCamilli plays defense for the Nordiques, a hard-luck team in a Sunday-night floor-hockey league in Cicero. Tonight's battle is against the Bombers, who, like the Nordiques, are winless in two games. The best either team figures to finish is fourth--good enough for the last spot in January's play-offs. But DeCamilli has a motto: win or lose, you play with pride.

"No one pays us to play," he says. "We pay to play. It costs $650 for a team--although a lot of teams have sponsors; ours is Hungry's, a restaurant in Burbank--and another 20 bucks per player for jerseys. We're blue-collar guys playing a blue-collar game. We wait all week for Sunday-night hockey in Cicero. We play from the heart."

As he talks, he eases his Chevy pickup away from his parents' north-side town house. The ride is bumpy, and his $18 hockey sticks, $150 all-leather gloves, and $15 plastic shin guards bang about in the back.

"I really fell in love with hockey in 1980 when Team USA beat the Russians in the Olympics. That was beautiful. When it was over--and [TV announcer] Al Michaels said 'Do you believe in miracles?'--I had chills running up my spine. I was in tears. I'd give just about anything to play for Team USA."

DeCamilli is 27 years old, thick, strong, and, at 200 pounds, about 30 pounds overweight. When he plays hockey, he doesn't use a cup or a mouth guard; he doesn't need to, he says. He wears his wavy black hair long, like Mark Gastineau of the New York Jets. He was once a bouncer in a few Rush Street bars. Now he removes asbestos for a living. It's hard to imagine him crying.

Floor hockey, he explains, is almost the same as ice hockey--only you play with five, not six: two defensemen, two forwards, and a goalie. They do without a center; there's no room on the floor for six players. "In some ways, it's tougher than ice hockey," he says. "There's no ice, no skates, just sneakers on the gym floor. You can't glide. Once you stop running, you have to start again. The first thing to go are your legs. We use a plastic puck weighted down with 50 BBs in the middle and then covered with black electrical tape. Some guys knock that thing 95 miles an hour. There are three 15-minute periods with running time, which means the clock doesn't stop unless someone gets hurt. There are two refs; they call penalties. There's not supposed to be contact--you can't drill a guy into the boards. But come on, this is hockey.

"I had a friend--a friend I'm talking about--take a swing at me, oh, about two years ago. I didn't see his fist coming. He hit me square in the face. I went down. I was almost knocked out. He busted my tooth. But you don't think about the pain. I never worry about getting hurt. If you worry about that, you watch it--you're gonna get hurt."

He pulls up and parks outside Cicero Stadium. There are cars and trucks lined up and down the street. "Look at the cars, man." he says. "Pretty heavy action for a Sunday night."

From inside comes the sound of wooden sticks whacking the rubber-coated gym floor, which is scarred black after years of play. A padded makeshift wall curves around both ends of the gym floor. There are about 40 spectators sitting in the bleachers that rise along the sides of the gym floor. They have no protection from flying pucks, though there's a five-foot drop to the floor.

There are two squads already playing, one dressed in blue, the other in gold. DeCamilli points to a tall defenseman. "That's Joe Hall. We played on the Bolingbrook High School hockey team together. We ran together. After high school, we stayed together. Whatever job I had, he took. We were like partners. Joe Hall is one of the toughest guys you ever want to see. I'm not kidding. I've seen him take on three guys and come out winning.

"Me, Joe, and two other guys--we roomed together in Chicago. That was, oh, in 1985. We had a place on Cornelia and Broadway. It was a rocking place: two stories, a spiral staircase, a weight room, five bedrooms. It was great. We never ran into one another, and if we did, we didn't care.

"We helped start this league. The Cicero park district had a league. Joe played in it--that's when he was living in Cicero. Joe got the league to allow out-of-towners like me. We put together the Empire--that was our team's name, before we changed it to Dynasty. Now they're called the Flames. There was Joe and me on defense; Barry Glosniak played forward--and let me tell you, he's a maniac. Scotty Frasco played forward, too. Jeez, Scotty Frasco. He's the smartest player at that position. Look at him. That's him out there, working the puck. Look at him run. You can't keep up with Scotty. That man's in perfect shape. This is a great team. They're playing the Canadiens. The Canadiens are good themselves. But they aren't as good as Joe's team."

It's true; the Flames seem to be always one step ahead of the Canadiens. A Flame breaks for the net, dekes the goalie with a wrist shot, deftly passes the puck to a teammate streaking in on the right, who scores.

DeCamilli jumps to his feet. "That's hockey! That's hockey! That's how you play hockey! Don't make a move you don't have to. Be patient. Let the other guy make the mistake."

"How come you're not down there playing with the Flames?" I ask.

"In 1986 I went to Las Vegas. I was gonna make big money in the fast lane. It didn't work. That's another story I'd rather not go into now. Anyway, when I get back I call Joe. I say, 'Joe, can I play on your team?' He says, 'Mark, I'm sorry. We're all filled up.' That's the way it goes."

He's silent for a moment, then he starts yelling. "Watch the shot! Watch the shot! Jeez, you gotta stay prepared."

He sits back. "Don't get me wrong. I have to be honest; I'd love to play with Joe again. We won three championships together. We were a dynasty. We were the best floor-hockey team in Cicero. We played and practiced all the time. Every day Joe and me, we'd head over to the Chicago Health Club in Lombard and run five miles. I was down to 150 pounds--the best shape I've ever been in. Then we go out for dinner, have a few beers, and talk hockey. That's all it was. Hockey. Hockey. Hockey. Hockey.

"But I'm not crying about it. Those were glory days, but I'm not on that team anymore. I called Tony, the coach of the Nordiques, and offered my services. They knew I could play. Now it's a new challenge. Our first game of the season was against Joe's team. They beat us 12 to 7. That was painful, but we'll learn. I've tasted victory--now it's a new challenge. It's OK to drink the champagne, but I want to build something. I want to create a new dynasty. We'll get there."

"Are you bitter?" I ask.

He doesn't seem to hear me. A Canadien has rapped his stick against the face of the Flames' goalie. Fortunately the goalie wears a mask. From nowhere Hall swoops in. He smashes the guilty Canadien into the wall. The Canadien drops his stick. Hall's gloves are already off, his fists clenched. He takes a swing. A bunch of players break up the fight. A penalty is called and Hall strides to the penalty box--actually a section of the bleachers--and sits down, glowering. He's locked up for the rest of the game.

"Did you see Joe Hall?" DeCamilli gasps. "That's Joe Hall. Look at him; look at his presence. He's tough as nails. His work ethic is outstanding. The man loves hockey. No matter what happens, I won't say a bad word about Joe Hall."

Less than a minute is left in the game. The Flames are winning eight goals to five. The Canadiens press but the Flames keep cool. They whip the puck around the floor, teasing the Canadiens players and finally running out the clock.

DeCamilli spots Fran Poulos, his fiancee, who has just walked into the stadium. She smiles shyly. They hold hands. On the floor, the Canadiens and the Flames exchange handshakes--no high fives. Their jerseys are soaked. DeCamilli heads to the locker room to change.

Up close Joe Hall looks like a nice guy: blond hair, hard jaw, kind of handsome. He's bent over, packing his gym bag. "What happened with that fight?" I ask him.

He shrugs. "Their guy hit our goalie in the face with his stick. We've got to protect our goalie."

"Did you hit him?"

He smiles and says nothing.

"I mean, doesn't it scare you, the thought of fighting?"

He looks surprised. "Nah, you don't worry about that. Hockey's fun."

The Nordiques have started warming up. From the centerline they fire slap shots at Bobby "Espo" Esposito, their goalie. They wear blue T-shirts with "Hungry's 5410 W. 79th Burbank" emblazoned on the front. The Bombers wear red and orange, except for their goalie, John Janis, who wears the bright red jersey of the Soviet Union. "Janis really admires the Russian hockey team," DeCamilli had said. "He thinks they have the best organization."

DeCamilli is loose. He pats teammate Joe Coyle on the rump. He jogs in place. He exchanges a laugh with Jimmy Ruzicka. He stretches. He leans over his stick. The ref raises his hand. The puck falls, and the game begins.

The puck is whacked into the corner. Two guys run after it, slap at it, and miss. They slap again. They miss again. It's like they're flailing at a brushfire with brooms.

Everyone seems to be running about like a lunatic except DeCamilli. He stays back and lets the action come to him. A Bombers forward, head down, puck on stick, runs at him, streaking for the goal. DeCamilli moves to his left, but the Bomber's too fast. So DeCamilli, sliding feetfirst, undercuts the Bomber and sends him sliding into the wall. It's amazing that no penalty is called.

"Line change," barks the coach, Tony Gallo. Four fresh bodies hurdle the railing and hit the floor running.

Joe Coyle is sitting on the bench near his son Danny, who is playing with a hockey stick that's longer than he is.

"Come on, Danny. Put the stick down," Coyle yells, half watching the game, half watching his son. "You'll hurt yourself."

A Bomber slams off the wall.

"I told you, put down the stick," Coyle warns.

Danny giggles.

DeCamilli sits on the bench, sucking at a plastic water bottle. A slap shot ricochets off the wall and bounces dangerously close to the net. A Nordique scoops up the puck and runs hard toward the goal.

"Come on Jimmy," DeCamilli calls.

"Go, go," screams Gallo.

"Put down that stick," says Coyle.

"Water, I need water," yells Ruzicka, underlining the urgency with a string of obscenities.

The Nordique player flips a shot at the goalie. It bounces high off his pads, and Jimmy Esposito, the Nordiques goalie's brother, sneaks around the net and tips it in. The Nordiques are ahead 1-0.

Emboldened, the Nordiques press harder. Their passing improves. They become sharper. Esposito is fantastic in the nets. He bats away every shot.

"He's unbelievable," DeCamilli shouts. "He was even better against Joe Hall's team. He must have stopped 60 shots."

It's obvious the Nordiques are the better team, and the blond Jimmy Esposito is their star. The Golden Jet of Cicero hockey runs up and down the floor, effortlessly digging, firing shot after shot at the goalie in the Soviet Union jersey.

"Danny, don't fall," says Coyle. His son is trying to balance a water bottle on his stick.

"Play it hard, Espo, play it hard," DeCamilli yells.

Back on the bench, Jimmy Esposito explains how he scored his goal. "I was behind the net when the puck popped at me. The goalie made a move back, and I slipped it past him."

"You're bleeding," I tell him.

He looks surprised. "Where?"

"Above your lip."

He shrugs. "It's just a scratch."

A Nordiques player has stolen the puck. Actually, it just sort of rolled onto his stick. Rather clumsily, he heads for the goal. His teammates on the bench rise to cheer. A Bomber cuts him off with a head-first dive, skidding his leg across the floor so hard you can hear skin burn.

"Penalty, ref," Tony Gallo yells. "Penalty."

The ref ignores him.

"What kind of call is that?" Ruzicka yells. "There should be a penalty shot."

The ref glares at Ruzicka. "Shut up," he says.

"Shut up?" says Ruzicka. "Shut up? That's not nice. If you want me to be quiet you should say, 'Please be quiet.' But not shut up."

By the middle of the last period the Nordiques have scored three more goals. The Bombers have scored once.

"I need a nice cold Lite," says Ruzicka, who then yells at a teammate. "Hey, Kenny. Go to the minimart and get me a cold Lite."

Kenny Zalewski grunts.

"Well, at least get me some water," says Ruzicka. "Jesus, I'm not kidding. These are the worst water boys. What are they doing?" He looks around. The water boys, Danny and a friend, are at the top of the bleachers playing with a shin guard.

"Would you look at that," Ruzicka says. "Maybe they should play hockey and we should get water for them, huh?"

Nobody says anything. They don't even laugh. They're getting tired. Their minutes on the bench between line changes seem like seconds, their minute on the floor like hours. It's getting tough for them to jump from the stands onto the floor.

Someone winds up for a slap shot, but he misses and hits a Bomber in the face. The Bomber falls, holding his lip. Drops of blood stain the floor. DeCamilli hovers over the wounded player, yelling, "He's hurt, ref. He's hurt."

The ref calls for a towel. Zalewski hands him one that's lying on the bench.

"Hey, that's my towel," Ruzicka cracks. "Give it back. Otherwise I got to do laundry."

"Next line," calls Tony. DeCamilli, straining and grunting, pulls himself over the railing and flops onto the bleachers. For a second he lies there, his eyes closed.

"My God," Ruzicka exclaims, "would you look at these guys?"

DeCamilli sits up in time to see two Bombers hop over the railing onto the floor, as though the game had just started. He gasps and drops his head back to the floor.

"They're not even tired," says Ruzicka.

"Who are these guys?"

"I was young once, too," says another Nordiques player.

"The bastards," says another.

"I don't think they sweat."

The game has evolved into a sprint, with the Bombers wildly pursuing the puck. With less than a minute left, DeCamilli, clearly on his last legs, knocks a Bomber down. The ref calls a penalty. The penalty box is no longer a bad place to be; you don't have to run.

On the bench after the game, Joe Coyle collects his belongings. He's in a rush because he has to play in an ice-hockey game in an hour or so on the southwest side.

"You're a madman," I tell him.

He smiles.

"What's your wife gonna say?"

"She's pretty good about it," he says. "I love hockey. I grew up on the southwest side near Midway Airport. All the kids in the neighborhood were hockey fans. We'd go to the Chicago Stadium at 5:30 in the afternoon to get standing-room-only tickets. That's all we could afford. Then we'd run up into the second balcony to reserve the best standing positions. It's a great game."

"Aren't you afraid of the violence and fighting?"

"What fighting? I'm 35. I don't fight. I never fight. I don't have the energy to fight."

The lights in the stadium shut off. DeCamilli stands in the lobby buttoning his coat. "Not bad, huh? Yeah, not too bad. I played OK, except I'm too fat. That's my problem. I've got to lose this weight. I've got to get in shape. I'm gonna get on one of those doctor-approved liquid diets, and I'm gonna lose 30 pounds. That'll get me my legs back. And then I'm gonna work these guys hard. They've got the work ethic; they're good guys. They don't do drugs. They're gonna get better." He throws out his hands. "So, we're not the Flames. We're inexperienced. We need time and practice. Joe Hall didn't learn the game in one night. We're young and hungry. The Flames are sitting on top, and we're working hard. But someday we'll beat them. And man, that'll be the greatest feeling in the world."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Gary Sigman.

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