Monroe: Pick-Up Hockey Attracts Veterans and Newcomers at Johnny's IceHouse East

Monroe Stop IconBy Matt Gentile and Kara Drapala
The Red Line Project
Posted: Friday, June 3, 2011

Rick Jones walked into Johnny’s IceHouse East Wednesday morning in a shirt and tie.

Jones, 57, is real estate lawyer in Chicago. He was calm and neatly groomed after appearing in court. But after hitting the ice for over an hour, he was sweaty and out of breath.

Playing a quick game of pick-up hockey helps him relieve some unwanted stress.

“It’s a great way to blow off steam,” Jones said. “I needed it today.”

Like Jones, many people come to Johnny’s IceHouse to play "rat hockey" throughout the week. The term rat hockey stems from the moniker “rink rat,” which is associated with players that hang around the hockey rink for hours, working on their game.

Players scuffle for the puck near center ice.
(Photo By Matt Gentile and Kara Drapala)

The IceHouse has rat hockey everyday of the week at its east location. Its west location,  which is where the Chicago Blackhawks hold their practices, has two sessions a week on Thursdays and Sundays.

“We have so many people that come to the ice (for rat hockey),” said Ken Rzepecki, a coach and instructor at Johnny’s Ice House for 11 years.

“They’re all from different walks of life,” Rzepecki said. “But we get a lot of guys who are doctors and lawyers.”

Jones didn’t start playing ice hockey until late in life. He took up the sport when he was 42-years-old shortly after learning how to skate.

“I started skating and I enjoyed it,” Jones said. “It’s good exercise. [There are] great people. The best people I’ve ever met are hockey players.”

The rink at Johnny’s Ice House usually fills up with the maximum capacity of 26 players for rat hockey. Nearly half of those players are at the rink every day, Rzepecki said.

“It’s a social thing,” he said. “Where can you park 10 cars in [Chicago] and just have fun? The hockey family is a very unique family.”

Unlike Jones, a lot of the regulars have played hockey since they were kids.

Sam Wilson, a 23-year-old from Lincoln Park, played youth hockey but stopped after his career at Creighton University. He recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and is entering the school’s pharmaceutical program.

Wilson said he comes to the rink most of the week to get a good workout.

“It’s more fun than just going to the gym and just sitting on the treadmill,” Wilson said.

The lone goalie watches the play at the far end of the
rink. (Photo By Matt Gentile and Kara Drapala)

Robert Barrett, a 25-year-old construction worker from suburban Detroit, moved to Chicago days ago. He started playing hockey when he was three-years-old and also played Division III at Wittenberg University in Ohio.

Barrett decided to stop playing organized hockey and focus on a business major at Loyola University. But he still enjoys his time during rat hockey.

“It’s great because we all just play for fun,” he said. “Most of these guys don’t get too rough because they have jobs to get back to.”

He also said the mix of talent ranges from newcomer to professional.

“We got a lot of junior guys [and] some pros come out here,” Barrett said. “The pros come out in the summer and have a skate around right after us.”

Patrick Walker, 31, is an investment banker for the Royal Bank of Scotland. He was about five-years-old when he took up the sport but stopped playing before attending Indiana University.

Walker comes six blocks from work to play once or twice a week and said there is a mutual respect among the players during the rat hockey time.

“No one here is going to fight or check each other because some of us have to go back to work,” he said. “To be honest, the quality of talent on the ice [during rat hockey] is better than the talent in the leagues.”

Rick Jones watches from the boards as a teammate
attempts a wrist shot. (Photos by Matt Gentile and Kara Drapala)

While most of the players have extensive experience, Johnny’s IceHouse has seen plenty of newcomers, according to General Manager Kevin Rosenquist.

Rosenquist said hockey’s surge in popularity has helped the Ice House increase class enrollment for both kids and adults. In fact, the adult leagues now have over 100 teams.

But for those that don’t have erratic work hours, rat hockey sessions are the top choice.

“It’s best for people that can make their own schedule,” Rosenquist said. “Also, attendance will pick up as the summer goes on.”

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