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The Other East Bank Club

North Avenue Beach is the lakefront's fitness beach.

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For anyone with a hankering for hockey after a winter without it in Chicago, the place to go, of course, is the beach. North Avenue Beach Sports runs a street-hockey rink near the big ocean-liner-style beach house. It organizes leagues of various skill levels and will even place interested individuals on a team if they can't find enough friends for their own. (See nabsports.com for details.) If Oak Street Beach to the south is where the svelte and the tan go to see and be seen, and beaches to the north offer their own diversions but tend to be more utilitarian, more for Chicagoans wishing to cool off in the lake and sun on the sand, then North Avenue is the fitness beach, the jock's beach--and the hockey rink is its most unusual attraction.

There participant sport meets spectator sport--for the hockey rink never ceases to draw some sort of crowd. The in-line game is lovely to watch when played with any sort of skill, and the players at the NAB Sports rink tend to be quite skilled. After all, playing hockey in the summer sun demands a certain devotion.

Ice hockey is beautiful when played at the highest levels, but the players are masked by helmets and blankets of padding. Not so at North Avenue, where the players tend to be as easy to look at as their game is to watch. Men favor ball caps, shorts, and sleeveless shirts if they're not bare chested, and the elbow pads and shin and knee guards that no hockey player at any level would go without give them a gladiatorial look. Women--and there always seem to be a few women more than holding their own in the rink--show more range: double-layered tank tops matched with Bauer sweat pants, sleeveless T-shirts that say "Vulcanized Rubbers" with sorority shorts, lion paw prints on both cheeks. The women tend to put up a tough facade, then go about proving it's no facade at all.

Whether the hockey's played on ice- or in-line skates, no other sport seems so smooth and effortless. Nothing matches that visual image unique to hockey: a player gliding through a turn, stick held low against the thighs, then bursting into motion with a few crisp strides as the puck approaches. As played at North Avenue, hockey is sportsmanlike--there's no stiff checking--yet demanding and precise. Players call out for passes, tap their sticks against the blue polypropylene playing surface to request the puck (or the ball--I've seen both in play), and fall into the established patterns of the sport: the three-on-two, the give-and-go. The game's typically played without goaltenders, the nets replaced by metal frames with a circular hole in each upper corner--where goalies are most susceptible to being scored upon--to give the scoring legitimacy. All the while there's a curious silence: no spraying of ice with each brisk stop or start, only the hum of the skates. When a shift ends the spell is broken.

I saw a guy climb across the boards, pull up a plastic chair, and immediately light up a cigarette. One of the women soon came over to ask for a drag.

Hockey is by no means the only sport in the area. There's an outdoor gym next to the rink and dozens of nearby volleyball nets. Administered this summer by Bally Total Fitness--formerly Chicago Health Clubs--the gym has a Venice Beach vibe. To be sure, anyone's welcome to use the facilities for $15 a visit, and geezers and owners of parabolic physiques can be spotted exercising in the sun. But in general the patrons tend to be fit and tan. On weekends someone working out in even a tank top is apt to stand out amid the sports bras and bare chests.

Beach volleyball also has a California connotation, especially at the pro level, which Chicago experiences when the Association of Volleyball Professionals Tour comes to town for its annual tournament at North Avenue. This year's is set for the first weekend of September (see avp.com for details). But on a stretch of sand to the north of the beach house the Chicago Park District annually plants about a dozen rows of net posts for amateurs, with courts two, four, or six abreast as the meandering shoreline allows. The courts are taken on a first-come first-served basis (no pun intended), and many are claimed by groups that inform friends where they are by flying distinctive flags from the posts--a Kansas Jayhawks flag here, an Iowa Hawkeyes flag there, a Texas Lone Star flag further on.

These groups are undeniably serious, having brought their own nets and boundary lines, but the play tends to be more erratic than at the hockey rink. In the grand Chicago manner, the men don't have to be flat bellied to go bare chested, and the women don't have to be rail thin to wear bikinis. When the sun is shining and the sand is hot, surf shoes or just plain beat-up old white socks protect the feet. There are good plays and bad, skilled setters, spikers, and overhand servers mixed in with players content simply to bat the ball over the net; but all the players know what to do even if they may not be all that good at doing it. I'm reminded of the skill level on display in a friendly 16-inch coed softball game--which is worth watching for the sheer joy of seeing people having fun at sports.

That association was fresh in my mind because I'd recently played a 16-inch game, not at North Avenue--on weekends the diamonds just across the drive tend to be turned over to kickball, of all things--but behind the Museum of Contemporary Art. Late in the game I found myself patrolling center field when a family of four, apparently fresh out of Water Tower Place, walked straight across the outfield without a care for whether they were interrupting the game.

"What kind of ball is that?" said the woman.

"It's a 16-inch Clincher softball," I said, trying not to miss the delivery of the next pitch.

"It's not really softball, though, is it?" said the man, with a distinct New York accent.

"It's Chicago-style softball," I replied, and he gave a gesture that said phooey.

How do you explain joy to a blind out-of-towner like that?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Yvette Marie Dostani.

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