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Novice hockey league fulfills adult dreams

Wake up out there all you Walter Mitty types, the National Novice Hockey League can't wait to fulfil your wildest fantasies on ice. You get to wear a professional uniform with all the pads, buy skates from the same manufacturer who supplies Wayne Gretzky, and compete against people at your own level of skill.

Adults of virtually all ages are welcome; so far the league has had players ranging from 21 to 69. Women shouldn't hesitate to apply either; in fact several dozen already have played during the league's five years of existence.

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The NNHL is based here, where it maintains a staff of five full-time employees, including its 29-year-old founder and national administrator Ashley Root. Ashley's life once revolved strictly around the wins and losses of the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals, who dealt chiefly in frustration when he worked for them. Then one day he got the idea that there are a lot of people out there who never played the game but would like to do so if they had the chance.

Originally limited to the Washington, D.C., area, the NNHL program has grown into a coast-to-coast operation with leagues in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego, St. Louis, Boston, Chicago, Hartford, and Philadelphia.

Among its 3,500 members are approximately 50 women. Players devote a minimum of 1 1/2 hours a week to the sport, although more playing time is encouraged.

What makes the NNHL unique is that it caters to failure - at least at the beginning. If you can skate backwards, it doesn't want you. If you have ever fired a puck at a goalie in anger, please don't apply. If body checking is what turns you on, league officials will quickly turn you off.

According to Steve Katz, the NNHL's national senior officer, just a few local newspaper ads are sometimes enough to start a whole new division of teams. Katz calls it a professional approach to amateur hockey.

The cost, a one-time registration fee of $25, plus $188 for 16 to 20 weeks of instruction, doesn't seem to bother anyone who has ever dreamed of wearing a jersey with Bobby Orr's famed No. 4 on it. Additionally, prospective players should be prepared to spend upwards of $250 for equipment that would not be frowned upon by the pros.

''The toughest part of this operation is having people show up who really can skate a little or have played hockey before,'' Katz explained. ''While they might tell you otherwise, once we spot them skating backwards or making sharp cuts on the ice without losing their balance, we have to move them into one of our three higher classifications.

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''Believe me, we are what we say we are at the beginner's level - a league where people who have never been on ice before can come and learn the game. We don't want anyone getting hurt either, which is why we prohibit slap shots, body checking, and violence of any kind.

''We have also made it a rule that everyone who plays must wear an approved helmet with a cage mask that covers the entire face.

''We knew the NNHL was a good idea,'' he added, ''when when we checked and discovered that 85 percent of our first-time enrollees were signing up to play a second year.''

Leagues consist of up to eight teams, with rosters limited to 15 players each , including the goalie.

Most novices arrive for their first lesson with the preconceived idea that shooting a puck is so much more fun than catching one that goalies are sometimes in short supply.

If ice time is your primary consideration and you can afford the extra $200 or so needed to wrap yourself in equipment befitting a Roman gladiator, you have a chance to stop, block, catch, or smother pucks for 60 minutes.

Permanent team coaches and two officials for each game are assigned and paid for by the league.

''Only after we've put all newcomers through three weeks of skating drills do we decide on what positions they will play,'' said Coach Bruce Caldwell, who works California's West Covina ice rink for the NNHL. ''Usually people will accept your evaluation of their ability. But if you make a defenseman of some guy who has dreamed all his life of playing center, then the art of diplomacy often becomes more important than coaching. However, we're reasonable people who have been known to change our minds - at least until the player comes around to our way of thinking on his own.''

The next five weeks of instruction, he explained, are spent learning how to handle a hockey stick, how to fall, how to shoot, how to pass, and how to hit the boards safely when it becomes unavoidable. After that, leagues are formed, rosters filled, and an eight-week schedule drawn up. Beyond that are - what else? - the playoffs.

For those who have always felt that there is romance in chasing a puck on skates, consider the following.

Amid the fierce but friendly competition of the NNHL one season, two players met and married. However, Cupid must have been using a double-pronged hockey stick, since the bride and groom played on opposing teams!


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