Nothing says hockey like a 75-degree December day.
For the members of the Manatee Ball Hockey League, that's the recipe for a perfect hour of exercise.
Fourteen members of the league showed up to play at Lakewood Ranch Park's concrete rink Dec. 4. The majority were wearing shorts and a league T-shirt designating their team — red or blue — plus a helmet and knee, shin and elbow pads, if desired. As much as ice hockey fans love to laud the sport's perfect fit for cold weather, ball hockey is best played in the sun, its rays cooking the concrete under the player's sneakers. Other than the weather, the game looks like the game played on ice, just at four-on-four and with less contact.
In both, you will find in-shape adults pushing themselves to their limits.
"We have four subs today?" Jeff Kattrein said to his league mates before the Dec. 4 game. "That's great. Guys, I might not throw up today."
The league was started by Bradley Gustafson, a 33-year-old ice hockey veteran. Gustafson got the idea when his 4-year-old son, Lucas Gustafson, complained about his ability to play ice hockey with his friends as easily as he does other sports like baseball and soccer. The sport is pricey and the closest ice rink is Ellenton Ice Complex.
That's when Bradley Gustafson remembered the Lakewood Ranch Park ball hockey rink. The rink was provided to the park by the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of its Lightning Made Hockey program, which seeks to grow hockey in Tampa and nearby cities. The Lightning use the rink for youth clinics a few times a year, but other than that, it had remained empty since it opened in August 2019.
Gustafson contacted the Lightning and Manatee County about using the rink as a home for a local league and, well, the ball got rolling from there, with some assistance from USA Ball Hockey. The MBHL ran a youth season first, which included age subdivisions. Gustafson said the inaugural season, which ended in October, had approximately 40 participants. Then he and a few of the league's youth coaches decided to start an adult league while the youth league is taking a break. There are 20 members of the adult league. Gustafson said he hopes both numbers grow in the second season. The next youth league starts in January with a registration deadline of Dec. 31.
Gustafson said he hopes both the adult and youth divisions grow the game in the Lakewood Ranch area while offering an easy way for newcomers to get started.
"Ice hockey is an expensive sport," Gustafson said. "We wanted to give kids and parents a cost effective way to get out to a rink and play a game. In ball hockey, all you need is a stick and a ball. The barriers to entry are so much lower."
So now we're here, and people like Austin Edgar are able to hop into a game and learn. Edgar, 33, only started playing the game of hockey in his late 20s. He's still learning, he said, especially ball hockey. This season is his first time taking the, uh, concrete. He's having a lot of fun, he said, even though the game plays differently.
No body contact means defenders play offensive players differently, focusing on stealing pucks away and intercepting passes. It's also different when on the attack as players aren't able to move as smoothly so there are not many opportunities to juke out a defender. There's an emphasis on shot accuracy — something Edgar showed off when he scored a top-shelf goal to the left corner.
"That one felt good," Edgar said with a smile. "I'll be thinking about that one for a while."
Then you have guys like Bill Stubblebine, 50, who has "played hockey longer than these guys (Gustafson and Edgar) have been alive." He's seen it all in his time, including fights, breakaway goals and diving saves. More than any of those things, Stubblebine said, he likes this group because it brings with it the opportunity to teach. Both Stubblebine and Edgar are coaches in the youth division, and Stubblebine said watching players fall in love with the sport is the most rewarding experience he can have. During last year's youth season, he said, there were three girls who had never played the sport before. One game, all three of them scored. The sight almost brought a tear to his eye.
When the Dec. 4 game ended with Team Blue taking an 8-3 victory, neither Kattrein nor anyone else had vomited, though plenty were drenched in sweat after three 18-minute periods. There were no broken sticks — or teeth — and at the final buzzer, the teams tapped gloves like hockey players do. The MBHL has a no-tolerance policy on fighting of any kind, but Gustafson said it has never come close to enforcing it. The people in the league are there for a good time, to enjoy a beautiful sport together, and that's all. It's the same respect for the game and for each other that they teach in the youth division.
As Stubblebine was walking away from our chat, he came back to shout "hockey is life!" His message was met with approval from the players still hanging around the rink. That is what it's all about. People who love hockey don't love any other sport nearly as much. Many members of the MBHL fall into that group and want to pass that passion on to whoever is open to receiving it, be it a child or a fellow adult. Age doesn't matter when you step inside the rink.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.