In the lobby at Excellent Ice, a colour-coded video screen that shows game times and rink numbers says it all about the fun of three-on-three hockey.
The Devil’s Rejects, Blue Donkeys of Doom, Buzzer Beaters, Flying Hellfish, Shake n’ Bake, Who Needs Teeth – these are team names in a league that could be dubbed “beer league” hockey for kids.
“I would say it’s more like organized street hockey on ice,” Lyle Wingert, who manages the league, said with a laugh. “We call it pond hockey in the brochure and on the website, so there are a few names for it.”
Excellent Ice, an arena located in a Panorama-area business park, southwest of Highway 10 and 152nd Street, boasts three “mini” rinks for hockey.
Each spring, when local hockey associations conclude their seasons, a large number of young players lace up for some additional on-ice action, in a much less structured environment.
“This spring we have about 2,400 players on around 222 teams, from Hockey 1, which is five-year-olds, right up to Midget-aged players, who are 17,” said Wingert.
Those numbers don’t include the facility’s adult leagues, which involve an additional 400-plus players.
“It’s grown, no doubt,” added Wingert, who has run leagues at Excellent Ice for close to 14 years, “and this is the busiest time of year, right now.”
The facility in Surrey is a unique one that attracts young players from as far afield as Chilliwack and Whistler for weekly hour-long games.
“We had a couple guys who play in the men’s league come from Victoria,” Wingert noted. “They took a ferry every week to play hockey here.”
Among local associations, the five-on-five game of winter includes rules that don’t allow hockey players to cross boundaries. For example, a player who lives in Surrey couldn’t just one day start playing for a team in Langley.
At Excellent Ice, however, those rules are out the window, allowing parents and their kids to form “buddy” teams, sometimes with players from other areas, on squads boasting some colourful names.
Robert Johns, a Cloverdale-area father of two, has coached teams there for eight years.
“Both of my boys, their teams are all their buddies, so it’s beer league for those kids,” he said with a smile. “I bring in a cooler full of cold root beer, and they drink that after the game, it’s great.”
The three-on-three game, Johns said, allows young players to get more creative on the ice.
“It’s an opportunity to do things they can’t do in five-on-five,” he said, “because they carry the puck more here, shoot more, handle it more and develop those skills. There’s way more flow, too, because there are no off-sides, no icing. They get the puck, chase it, and some magic happens every time.”
It’s great to have the arena so close to home, Johns added.
“This is in our backyard but we’ve played teams from Bellingham that come up here,” he said.
“Parents love it too because they can grab breakfast, lunch, dinner, a cold beer, while the kids are having fun on the ice.”
Darin Vetterl, who has run the Rangers instructional program at Excellent Ice for eight years, has seen some high-level players skate there, including current Edmonton Oilers winger Jujhar Khaira (a Surrey native) and Vancouver Canucks D-man Troy Stecher (who grew up in Richmond).
With the Rangers, he focuses on the younger kids – players aged five, six and seven, mostly.
“In this game, they learn some other skills,” Vetterl said. “Like, you have a kid who scores a lot of goals, then put them on the back end so they learn how to see the ice, make breakout plays and also carry the puck. The smaller ice, and less players on it, is a huge benefit that way. They have to make decisions faster, too.”
Wingert, who works as an amateur scout for the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, says the fun of the three-on-three game helps build better players in the long run.
“Goalies get a ton of shots, which can be good for them, even though a lot of goals get scored in this game,” he said. “And for skaters, it’s a different game where there are more two-on-ones, down-low cycling, use of speed. The concept most coaches try to teach in five-on-five is, two or three steps then pass the puck, right, and you have to do it here because you always have someone on top of ya. That’s a nice avenue, but again, you’re trying to generate a two-on-one opportunity at any given place on the ice. The players also touch the puck here more than five-on-five, so they practice those puckhandling skills more, too.”
More than that, Wingert emphasized the ability of the three-on-three game to make any player shine.
“Obviously we’re not replacing five-on-five, but it’s the concept of allowing all the kids to score, even the weaker kids who sometimes get left off the scoresheet,” Wingert explained. “They get the opportunity to shoot and get goals in the three-on-three game more often. Even things like a penalty. Nobody sits in the box here, the player (who was fouled) gets to take a penalty shot, so there’s more scoring that way too. That’s exciting for a little kid and maybe their grandparents who come and watch and never get to see that kid have a chance to score a goal like that. Some kids go through a whole (winter) season and not score a goal, until they get here. It’s a great experience for them.”
On weekends, Excellent Ice absolutely buzzes with players, parents and siblings who are there either watching the action or creating it on ice.
“Our games start at seven in the morning and go right up to 11 o’clock at night,” Wingert boasted. “There are 12 games on every rink here on weekends, with three 20-minute periods, running time. It can get crazy in here.”
Every so often, Wingert gears up for a skate around one of the “ponds” at the busy hockey hub.
“I still play, yes,” he said. “I still enjoy it, and I actually prefer this – and I’m not just saying that because I run it. It’s just more like street hockey to me. I played ball hockey, some junior hockey, but this is fun, brings back the child in me.”