I have mixed feelings about playing in the Chicago Outdoor Hockey League (COHL). You see, two years back, I wrote about the COHL for "The Hockey News" (article here), and was soon inspired to learn how to play hockey. Watching a few COHL games was the catalyst for me to become The Hockey Noob, and I am grateful for the inspiration. Things came full-circle for me when I joined the COHL for the 2014-15 season.
At the same time, playing in the COHL was not as great as I imagined. There were some really big upsides and downsides to the outdoor league, which plays in Niles and in Cicero. I played in the COHL D-Level "Northsiders" Division in Niles, so that is what is reviewed here.
I had about 18 months of hockey experience by the time I played in the COHL, and felt that I was able to keep up. Many of those I played with and against I know from the Heartland Novice Hockey League or from Hockey 101 & 102 at Johnny's Ice House.
I strongly suggest that you take hockey lessons somewhere (see the Resources page for a list) before joining this or any league. I have a friend who claims that her teammates the previous season were pulling price tags off of their gear before their first game. That's funny, but also kind of scary if you think about it.
Some of the teams that I played against had a few skaters that were way too good to be considered D-Level players. In most of the games my outdoor team played, the score was close; we either won or lost by a one or two goal margin. But one team in particular decimated us by six or seven goals; I honestly lost count and started daydreaming about lunch at Culver's. While lopsided losses are bound to happen, the COHL doesn't really weed out ringers in the D-Level; or at least not in my division.
Also, you should want to play hockey in the outside in winter if you join the COHL. While that may seem obvious, keep in mind how miserably cold Chicago winters get.
Game Details - ★★☆☆☆
One opponent of mine summed up the COHL as "a really loose and often sloppy approximation of hockey." That might sound a bit harsh, but consider that the league uses a running clock and does not call icing, which results in a lot of dump and chase. We are then left with a "hockey-like" game that, while fun to play, is not the same as playing hockey in an indoor league.
COHL Games consist of two 22-minute halves. While 44 minutes of game time is comparable to most other leagues, that running clock really eats at the time. Every time a team scores, the goalie freezes the puck or a penalty is called, time just keeps slipping away until the next face-off. The clock is stopped during the last two minutes of the second half if the score is within two goals.
The lack of icing is a real pain. Basically, this results in the game being mostly dump and chase, which I found lame. Teams would dump the puck from anywhere -- even from their own zone into the opponent's -- then chase it down. It was a lot less about playmaking and more about winning a footrace to the puck. Icing is only called -- and the clock is stopped -- in the last two minutes of the second half if the score is within two goals, so it cannot be used strategically in the waning moments of a close game.
Penalties in a COHL game result in a penalty shot. Again, no clock stoppage here, so by the time the referee notifies the score keeper, the players line up by the benches, and the shot is taken, a good 30 to 40 seconds are gone.
The COHL does not allow body checking or fighting in any of their skill divisions.
Teams - ★★★★☆
Most of the teams in the Niles D-League signed up as teams. A few teams were made up of "free agents," so if you don't know anyone, you can join the COHL, get placed on a team, and hopefully make some new hockey friends. The minimum amount of players required on a roster is eight skaters and a goalie; most teams had around 10 or so skaters, which is ideal when playing outdoor hockey. You don't want to sit for too long when it is cold out. The only drawback here, as stated above, is that ringers were not weeded out.
Schedule - ★★★★★
Games during the 2014-15 season were played on Saturdays and Sundays, depending on your skill level. It seemed that all D-Level games were on Sundays, save for the odd makeup game on a Saturday.
One thing I really enjoyed about the COHL was the start time of the games. With the exception of a few make-up games that were held early (8 a.m.) or late in the afternoon (5 p.m.), game start times were convenient -- anywhere from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Playing a hockey game is so much more fun during the daytime than, say, on a Tuesday at 11 p.m. The ideal game times were a huge upside for me.
Several games were cancelled and subsequently rescheduled during the season. The very first game was rescheduled because the rink was not ready. A few games were rescheduled because the weather was too warm. Another game was rescheduled because it was dangerously cold. Playing outdoors, stuff like this is bound to happen. Admirably, the COHL is very quick to notify everyone via text message and emails -- as well as website updates -- if games are cancelled.
Cost - ★★★★☆
Players in the Northsiders Division paid $285 for a 12-game season, plus at least one playoff game. Early registrants were given a $25 discount. Factoring in the discount, and counting on only getting in one playoff game, that breaks down to $20 per game, which is the average cost for a hockey game. Those who played in the COHL the previous season were given an additional $30 discount.
All players were given two jerseys: one forest green "home" jersey and one white "road" jersey. All COHL players are required to wear their COHL-issued jerseys in COHL games. While you got to select your own number, the jerseys were extremely lightweight and cheaply made. They were so flimsy that most of my teammates wore one over the other -- partially for warmth, and partially because the white jerseys were so sheer you could see your shoulder and elbow pad brand logos through them.
As a bonus, players were given a winter hat that had an embroidered Blackhawks' logo on one side and an embroidered COHL logo on the other side. The hats were actually very high quality -- and very warm -- so my COHL hat became my hat of choice during this past winter.
Ice Quality - ★☆☆☆☆
The biggest problem of playing in the COHL was the ice itself. That is somewhat unfair, given that:
a) the COHL does not manage or maintain the ice, they just lease it, and
b) the COHL has no control over the weather
The outdoor rink Niles ranged from adequate to atrocious. Sometimes, it was like skating on gravel. Other times, sunlight would cause the ice to melt a bit in some spots. If it was very cold outside, the ice would not freeze evenly. Again, this is not the fault of the COHL, who is at the mercy of Mother Nature and the facility's staff.
"Still, they definitely could have done a better job tending to the ice," says one of my teammates, "as other outdoor rinks consistently had better playing surfaces."
A canopy covers the Niles' outdoor rink, so snow was not a problem. Unfortunately, that means no skating under an open blue sky like our "Southsider" counterparts, who played at the Bobby Hull Community Ice Rink in Cicero.
"I know most of the Soutshiders take jabs at the Niles' outdoor rink," says another of my teammates, "but I like the controlled atmosphere."
Amenities - ★★★★☆
Locker rooms are big enough to for around 11 or so adult players. Showers always have plenty of hot water. There is a parking lot, but it sometimes gets full; you can park on the street, though. There is no pro shop onsite, but Gunzo's Hockey Headquarters is just down the street. The concession stand will most likely be open, since games are during the daytime, if you want to grab a snack or sports drink before or after your game.
Etc. - ★☆☆☆☆
A big complaint from many COHL players was the lack of statistics.
"I wasn't too big on the league," says a first-year player. "Up front, it seemed like they would be keeping close track of all team and individual statistics. In the end though, the standings were rarely updated and often incorrect. Individual statistics didn't exist at all."
In previous years, the COHL tracked individual player stats via Pointstreak, a popular site used by many other recreational hockey leagues. For 2014-15, the COHL switched over to Sports Signup, which does not track individual stats.
Team captains could not access score sheets from any of the games if they wanted to manually compile their own stats. Heck, even team captains in the Franklin Park Original Six League are given paper copies of the score sheets after every game.
Many times, league standings were slow to be updated.
Overall - ★★★☆☆
It is important to mention that the COHL is not run by a rink or a park district. It is run by a group of passionate amateur hockey players who are dealing with (read: at the mercy of) two different outdoor facilities. Therefore, the COHL isn't always the top priority of these rinks, who many times commit their ice to other activities. Running a league, more or less, out of a guy's house is no small feat.
Problems aside, the COHL D-League is a good place for beginning hockey players to start. The price is right and the players are friendly. The games might be "hockey-like," with their running clock, lack of icing, and penalty shots, but you will still have fun.
"It's something I look forward to every year," says a three-year veteran of the COHL. "I'll complain about how things are managed, but I'll definitely be signing up."
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