Jon French has had the opportunity to play on the Baraga Telephone Company’s adult hockey team a couple times over the years.
It’s always a pleasure for the 42-year-old to lace up his skates for the business he works for. But while most people would think a hockey player would play on his company team every season, the Copper Country Old Timers Hockey League in Houghton, Michigan, instead uses a draft system.
“I enjoy playing on the team I work for, but unfortunately, it’s not always the case that we can do that,” French said. “It’s more about playing with other people. That’s the beautiful thing about our league is that it’s not the same core guys year after year after year. You’re playing with people that you hate playing against or you really like playing against in the past. Now you’re like, ‘Oh, man, I have to play against this guy. He’s a hustler. This guy’s really good with his hands.’”
Parity is the name of the game in the league based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There are only six teams in the league — in which you have to be over 30 years and old to play in — and about 80 players. About 12 to 13 players make up a team, and players rarely drop out of the league. Guys know other players’ tendencies on the ice and know them real well outside the rink. Games get downright competitive, noted Baraga player Ryan DeForge.
“Hockey’s fun, and that’s what brings us there, but it’s hanging out with the guys afterwards,” said DeForge, 39. “If you were to ask anybody in the league, that’s what everyone’s going to say.”
Postgame is definitely a weekly highlight for the players. The league runs on Sunday mornings with three consecutive games at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and noon. After each team plays its game, it’s tradition for teams to have as meal where one player from each squad cooks. Another player brings the beverages, and the teams eat in their respective locker rooms.
Guys will make everything from egg bake to Philly cheesesteaks to shrimp, French said.
“It’s funny because you can move up in the drafting ranks by how well you can cook and what your signature dishes are,” French joked. “It’s about the only time that a lot of us, at least with families, can get away and say it’s their time.”
It’s not uncommon for players to wander into another team’s locker room during meals to share food as well as a friendly conversation.
“I think the camaraderie in our league is what really sets it apart,” French said. “All the teams are good, are competitive with each other. You don’t have that one team that’s always picking up the best players and blowing everybody else out. It’s fun.”
Baraga has had some good teams over the years. The company’s owner, Paul Stark, is a big hockey player and drafts his team each fall.
“It’s nice to get to know your boss and the owner of the company outside of work,” French said. “You see a different side of everybody. You have the same people that you work with, but you never really see their social side, because when you see them at work, work is work. You might joke around a little bit. But when you’re sitting on a bench next to them, it’s different.”
A few years ago, eight players in the league worked at Baraga. The running joke is the owner of Baraga, who started the team in the 1970s, only hires hockey players to work for him.
“But in return, what Paul sees is that, hey, this guy works his tail off on the ice, I like his work ethic,” French said. “He brings him into Baraga Telephone Company and they seem to work the same off the ice as they do on the ice.”
There are always inter-company rivalries each fall when the league gets underway.
“Up here, hockey is just a staple of the community,” French said. “It just seems like everybody plays hockey.”
Some of the Baraga players compete in the annual Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Playing in the tournament is fun and winning is paramount.
“I think that’s our nature up there,” DeForge said. “When we come down here, we come to win. You’re raised that way as a kid. Our Copper Country is known for its hockey, so it’s always a tradition to play as best as you can and hard as you can. You aren’t satisfied unless you win.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.