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Bay Area Street Hockey Calls Noe Valley Home
By Sharon Gillenwater
Matt Zilinskas knows hockey. Having played professional hockey throughout Europe as well as on a Canadian national team, he has faced off against some of the world's most experienced and formidable players. But, he says, the most competitive hockey he has ever witnessed has been right here in Noe Valley.
"I've never seen anything like it," says Zilinskas when describing the Bay Area Street Hockey league, also known as BASH, which plays nearly every Sunday at James Lick Middle School. "I am amazed by the competitiveness of this league."
You have probably noticed them on the weekends, walking up 24th Street in their colorful jerseys, sweaty, bruised and rumpled, and wielding their well-worn hockey sticks with pride. Maybe you did a double take and wondered if there was a clandestine ice rink in the basement of Bell Market.
But BASH doesn't need ice to play hockey. Though the league is populated by a disproportionate number of Canadians and Massachusetts natives who are used to playing on ice, these hockey aficionados are more than happy to swap skates and a puck for a pair of Nikes and a plastic ball.
BASH was founded in 1991 by Noe Valley resident Mitchell Friedman, who played street hockey as a child on Long Island, N.Y. After moving to San Francisco, nostalgia for the game prompted him to place an ad in the newspaper calling for players. An overwhelming response led to Saturday morning pickup games. In the beginning, players would throw their sticks into a pile at center court, and Friedman would toss half of the sticks toward one goal and half toward the other. Each player followed his stick, and teams were formed.
Before long, a more formal league was established.
Friedman became the first commissioner, presiding over four teams: the Seals, the Flames, the Whales, and the Caenadians, named for famed San Francisco columnist Herb Caen. In the fall of 1991, the first season began, and the BASH moniker was adopted. In the years since, the league has expanded to six teams, of 15 players each. Just like in ice hockey, players score points by whacking the ball past their opponent's goalie into a net. But in this game, they're in sneakers, pounding on asphalt. Over a total of 11 seasons, more than 250 players have done battle at "The Lick."
The Occasional Female Player
There are 90 active players in any given BASH season. Interestingly, each season typically sees at least one female player in the league. In 200203, the lone woman was Tami Weiss, who conveniently lives right around the corner from James Lick at 24th and Castro. Weiss became involved with BASH after coming upon the playoffs during a walk through the neighborhood.
"I stopped to watch for what I thought would be five minutes," she recalls, "but the intensity and emotions were so amazing from both the players and the crowd that I stayed for the whole game."
After this chance encounter, Weiss joined the summer league and has been hooked ever since. She says she feels "a little outclassed by all these hockey superstars," but that doesn't mean she can't hold her own. Among her favorite BASH memories is scoring the winning goal for her team, the Roadrunners, in a game earlier this season.
While approximately half of the players live within the city limits, a surprising number commute from the East Bay, Silicon Valley, as far south as Salinas, and as far north as Sacramento. One dedicated regular flies in from Palm Springs when his schedule allows. Others have commuted by plane from Washington and New Jersey. This level of commitment illustrates the intense devotion that BASH inspires.
"A Fraternity for Hockey Fanatics"
The players love to talk about why they are so passionate about the league. Henry Watts, a Noe Valley resident and captain of the Landsharks, chalks it up to the organization's unique structure.
"You're always playing against the same people, so there are some great rivalries," he says. "Also, BASH is the only sports league I have ever heard of where you can trade players, protect players from one year to the next, or give players who want to change teams 'free agent' status, meaning they go into the draft the following season and can be chosen by any team. So you can do things to try and improve your team every year, which also adds to the rivalries."
League commissioner Sandy Knapp says the real reason for BASH's loyal following is that the league remains governed by the players. Unlike a softball league that might be administered by Rec and Park, BASH is completely independent. Players fund the league through annual fees, and many people--players, ex-players, and fans among them--donate their time to help BASH run smoothly. Members are responsible for refereeing games for other teams, transporting all boards and equipment to James Lick, and for cleaning up the playground after the games.
"BASH really is a community," says Knapp. Like most modern-day communities, the league maintains a robust online presence where players can register, check the game schedule, and view standings and stats. A very active league message board fosters 24/7 communication and enables members who have moved away to talk about BASH and the world of hockey with their former cohorts. "We have players check in from other parts of the U.S., Canada, Europe, and believe it or not, Africa," says Knapp.
"It's a fraternity for hockey fanatics," says Zilinskas, "and it's not about just what goes on inside the ring. Lasting friendships are formed."
In addition to hanging out before and after the games, league members enjoy each other's company at a variety of social events. Each year, the league organizes a popular All-Star Game and a year-end awards ceremony. And though the official BASH season concludes in early April with the championship playoffs, there will be pickup games to bridge the gap until the more informal summer league starts in June.
The Graying of BASH
The age range of BASH players spans an astounding three decades. In recent years, there have been players as young as 17 and as old as 47. In 1991, when the league was founded, the average age was somewhere in the mid-20s. More than a decade later, the average player is estimated to be around 34. Many players have married and had children during the course of their tenure, as evidenced by the weekly congregation of wives and toddlers swinging miniature hockey sticks.
Ex-pro Zilinskas, who is not exactly a youngster himself at 32, says the age factor might have something to do with the league's competitive nature. "They're a bunch of guys going through midlife crisis who want to show they can still compete," he cracks. "The youngest guy on my team is 29, and there must be five guys over 40. It's a great way for older fans to stay in shape and enjoy the game."
More Polite Than the NHL
George Sacca, owner of Angel's Market at 26th and Castro, is one of BASH's biggest fans. When he bought Angel's eight years ago, he immediately noticed a steady influx of jersey-clad jocks looking to fortify themselves with Gatorade, or needing a bag of ice to soothe an injury.
"They're a great bunch of guys," he says. "Many of them are professionals--doctors, attorneys, financiers--they set a good example for the kids at the school and give business to the neighborhood, too."
Sacca says that when the players meet neighborhood kids in his store, they invite and encourage them to come check out the games. "They should have more interaction with the kids from James Lick," he says. "The kids could get a lot out of watching the games and talking to the guys."
Good sportsmanship and self-discipline are not only encouraged in BASH, they are institutionalized by league rules that are strictly enforced. While the action inside the rink is often intense, players must maintain their cool after the whistle blows. As in major-league sports, players shake hands with their opponents at the conclusion of every game. But unlike in the NHL, fighting is not part of the program. A first offense results in a one-game suspension, and a second merits expulsion from the league. Littering is also forbidden. In fact, players try to leave the playground cleaner than they found it.
Home Sweet Noe
Until this season, BASH has always played on Saturdays. But with City College using the Lick campus every Saturday, the league recently was faced with finding a new home. After an exhaustive search, BASH decided to change game day to Sunday rather than relocate out of Noe Valley. Their games usually kick off at 9, 11, and 1 o'clock, in the playground on the Clipper Street side of the school.
"We love playing at James Lick," says Commissioner Knapp, "and believe the shape of the playing and viewing area help to provide the unique BASH experience. We are very appreciative of the James Lick School and its principal for allowing us to play here, and we make great efforts to take care of the yard, in addition to being good citizens of the Noe Valley community." h
BASH championship games are scheduled to take place Saturday, April 5, and Sunday, April 6. For final schedules and additional information about BASH, visit www.3rdbase.com/bash/jw.