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Their Ice Time Has Come : Amateurs Find Cure for Hockey Fever in Relatively Tame Conejo Valley League

Times Staff Writer

Riitta Karava-Andonian strolled into the building, her diamond earrings sparkling under the fluorescent lights and her dark eyeliner and green eye shadow bringing a pair of pretty brown eyes to life.

But despite her good looks and all of the female accessories, something about her didn’t seem quite right. Perhaps it was the helmet and metal face mask she wore. Or the shoulder pads and knee pads and elbow pads. Maybe it was the pair of nicked and battered black Eddie Bauer Professional 90 hockey skates.

Karava-Andonian is one of more than 230 people who make their way to the Conejo Valley Ice Skating Center in Thousand Oaks once or twice a week for a little game of hockey. They play in the Conejo Valley Adult Hockey Assn., the largest amateur hockey league of its kind in California.

When most people think of hockey, they think of the National Hockey League. And when you think about the NHL, you think about slashing, spearing and skull-bashing. It is, arguably, the fiercest and most brutal game in the world. But then, what would you expect from a sport in which players carry heavy wooden clubs and wear sharp knives on their shoes?

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Hockey NHL-style, it seems, is played on ice only because it helps reduce the swelling.

The Conejo Valley Adult Hockey Assn. will never be confused with the NHL. For one thing, few of the players can skate like NHL players. Some of them can’t skate at all. That in itself drastically reduces the chances of the high-speed collisions that lead to fistfights. And just to ensure that the rink doesn’t become a kind of brief stopping-off point on the way to the emergency room of Los Robles Regional Medical Center, the league has banned intentional body contact and slapshots.

Some might argue that taking intentional body contact away from the sport of hockey is similar to prohibiting running, jumping and throwing in track and field. And when you ban the slapshot, it would seem, well, now you’re getting closer to that fine line separating hockey from shuffleboard.

But it has all worked out well for the players who spend a few hours a week thrashing their way up and down the ice, working up a sweat that keeps them warm in the 35-degree chill of the building--the same temperature that keeps spectators hopping around and pounding themselves like Muscovites on a frosty winter’s morn.

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The league was the idea of Scott Slinger, a transplant from Toronto who, upon learning at age 12 of his family’s impending move to Southern California, hooked up with his brother in insisting to his parents that they would only go along with such a drastic relocation if there was a guarantee that they could still play hockey.

An adult hockey league had existed in Thousand Oaks for nearly a decade, but it was poorly organized. Last February, Slinger and a few friends noticed that their Sunday pickup games were attracting more and more willing skaters. When they started turning players aw1635331104organize.

Sean McGillivray and Nancy Chenchick, now the facility’s hockey coordinator, helped Slinger with the formation of teams and divisions. League expansion has continued, and today there are 18 teams of 13 players or more competing in Novice, Novice II, Intermediate and Senior divisions.

The Novice II, Intermediate and Senior divisions include the majority of the good players, many of whom were born and raised in Canada or the Eastern or Midwestern U. S. The Senior division is home to such diverse players as 72-year-old Larry Killeen, a couple of women and Ross Lonsberry, a 12-year NHL veteran who played for the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings before retiring in 1981.

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The Novice division, however, might be the most interesting to watch.

“In many cases, guys who play in the Novice division have been lured into trying the sport by their kids,” said Slinger. “It can really get hilarious. Kids learning to skate are cute. Adults learning to skate are hilarious. They’ve watched hockey for a long time and they generally know what to do, but what they want to do on the ice and what their legs and body allow them to do are two different things.”

When they improve their skating techniques, they move to higher divisions. And, perhaps surprisingly to most people, considering Southern California’s alarming lack of natural ice, the hockey can be very good.

Safety measures imposed by Slinger--which include mandatory use of helmets with wire or plexiglass shields and a quick expulsion from the league for anyone who has seen a few too many NHL brawls--have kept the league and players intact. So far, there have been very few ugly incidents. Every month or so, a couple of guys will slam into each other and figure they have to growl a bit, but there have been more fights in the NHL during the singing of the national anthem than there have in the history of the Conejo Valley Adult Hockey Assn.

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In addition to the vast differences in age and skill among players, the league attracts players from all social backgrounds. Two or three own medical degrees. A few own law degrees. Many own pickup trucks.

“Everybody has the wrong impression about hockey,” 20-year-old Sean Warriner of Ojai said. “They expect barbarians slugging each other with their sticks all night. But this league isn’t like that at all. It’s just such a fast game and it gets your adrenaline pumping so hard. It’s a fast and aggressive game, and that’s what attracts most of us to it.”

Dan Melnick is a minority in the league--a native Southern Californian. He grew up near an ice rink in Van Nuys, adjacent to the Van Nuys courthouse. He knew by age 5 that he liked skating. He also, apparently, liked the courthouse. He’s an attorney.

“Hockey historically is a blue-collar game,” said Melnick, 35. “I don’t know why that is. I’ve played on teams with several attorneys.

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“The guys in this league don’t kid me so much about being a lawyer and being out of place in a hockey uniform as they kid me with the usual lawyer jokes. You know, I buy a new piece of equipment and I hear, ‘You’re a lawyer, you can afford that stuff.’ ”

OK, so no one ever accused hockey players of being great joke-tellers.

“I just enjoy hockey so much,” Melnick said. “I’ve been on softball teams and I’ve been bored to tears. It’s just a bunch of guys standing around all night. The one thing you don’t do in hockey is stand around.”

Other players give the same reasons for their participation. Karava-Andonian, a native of Finland who has played on men’s and all-women’s teams in her native country, gave birth to her first child last January and said nothing beats hockey for whipping the body back into shape.

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“It’s so much fun and you can’t help but stay in shape if you play a lot,” she said. “It’s a great workout. Better than any aerobics classes. Maybe Jane Fonda should try this.”

But there have been times, she admits, when being a woman in a male-dominated sport has caused a few problems.

“I was playing last year while I was pregnant,” she said. “Just for the first two months, though. Then I started throwing up on the ice and I had to quit playing.”

Morning sickness is not a common ailment in the NHL, unless, of course, you count hangovers.

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Pete Balgochian, 23, a player who grew up in Newton, Mass., said he always loved the game but in recent years it took on even more importance.

“Seven years ago I was 4-foot-10 and I weighed 220 pounds,” he said, giving the impression that his body had roughly the same shape as a puck. “Now I’m 5-10 and weigh 170. All because of hockey. I lost 60 pounds in one year just because of hockey.”

But all of the players give another reason--perhaps the real reason--why they play.

“There’s just something about the game that you have to play to feel,” Slinger said. “You’ve got to have it in you. I’ve played football and baseball and run track, but there’s nothing like hockey.

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“When you get a breakaway and you’ve got the puck and and you’re sweeping into the net and there’s a guy in front of you in the goal staring at you through an ugly mask, well, it’s just a big, big thrill. Once someone gets a taste of it and understands that feeling, they love it. There’s no turning back.”


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