With its ranch-style homes, wide shopping boulevard and near perfect Mediterranean climate, Castro Valley would seem to offer something for everyone -- everyone except restless adolescents.
"It's the same vibe pretty much throughout; there's just nothing to do," says Matthew Thomas, 20, a 2003 graduate of Castro Valley High School spending the summer home from Pepperdine University. "You ask anybody around here and they'll tell you there's nothing to do. The void's got to be filled by something."
According to Thomas, drugs and alcohol often become the only way to relieve the boredom some of his peers endure. "There's negative things that happen here just because there's a lack of positive things."
In an effort to offer a more productive alternative, Thomas and longtime friends Neil Libbe and Luke Spencer have established the East Bay Hockey League (EBHL). Despite the official sounding name, the league is essentially an ongoing, well organized pickup game of street hockey that draws 20 to 30 players every weekday from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Castro Valley's Canyon Middle School during the summer months. Players, both male and female, range in age from 16 to 25, but the odd 40-year-old also has been known to show up.
For a casual group, the EBHL certainly has its marketing strategy down. They have a Web site featuring playing-card-style photos of regular participants and T-shirts that many of the players wear emblazoned with EBHL's somewhat controversial slogan -- "cause hockey's better than cocaine" -- silk screened on the back. They are also in the midst of establishing the league as a nonprofit corporation.
No special equipment or understanding of the game is required for anyone who shows up to play. Everything from sticks to improvised padding for goalies (one set of pads is actually a tae kwon do vest) is provided gratis. Instead of skating with in-line or roller skates ("That would require skill," says Thomas), players wear regular athletic shoes. Another hockey staple that's been eliminated is checking -- the fine art of slamming into whoever has the puck. "We don't want people to get hurt out there," says Thomas.
Through donations and from digging deep into their own pockets, Thomas, Libbe and Spencer have acquired about worth of street hockey sticks, gloves, pucks, goalie masks and other hockey equipment that they lug to each session. It's enough to equip up to three five-man teams at any one time.
While the impetus for the EBHL may sound lofty, it didn't start out that way. For Thomas, Libbe and Spencer, all high school chums, it was just a new way to kill time last summer while on break from college. At first the trio (who refer to themselves as the "founding fathers" of the EBHL), busied themselves playing whiffle ball -- a form of baseball using a hollow ball with holes in it that doesn't fly very far when hit or do much damage when it lands -- in Libbe's backyard.
"We would just throw the ball and hit it, and that kept us from doing drugs, but I mean it really wasn't much. And it wasn't attracting anybody else to not do drugs," says the bearded Thomas with tongue planted firmly in cheek. He is quick to point out that he and his cohorts rarely drink and don't actually do drugs.
Seeking greater thrills than whiffle ball, the three paid a visit to a local sporting goods store where they chanced upon some street hockey equipment. They were immediately hooked. With a few sticks and homemade goals fashioned from PVC pipe and bedsheets (at a pop the pre-fab goals were deemed too expensive) the crew began playing in front of Libbe's parents' house. But after one too many pucks went flying into Libbe's neighbor's pool, the EBHL set up shop at Chabot Elementary School in Castro Valley. A month later, as interest grew in the pickup games, the EBHL moved to its current site.
A side benefit of the EBHL is that it's also brought together young people from disparate groups, such as the punk rockers and the jocks, who may have been enemies at high school. "When they're playing hockey together it turns out they actually kind of like each other," says Thomas.
Despite the best intentions, the league's slogan has raised more than a few eyebrows in the community. For Bill Firestone, whose son David plays in the EBHL, the cocaine reference is simply a way to draw attention.
"It's an advertising statement. It could be 'Go Climb a Rock.' No one looks at the phrase and somehow thinks that these people are hooked on cocaine and they're all in rehab. No, it's a slogan. I mean, they're all having fun," said Firestone recently while watching David play.
For at least one player the anti-drug reference hits home. Last summer Chris Vallely's parents caught him snorting cocaine and drinking at their Castro Valley home. They gave him an ultimatum: either go into rehab or leave the house. Vallely, now 21, agreed to attend an outpatient program that also required drug testing.
"At the program they talked about how you need to find a setting where drugs don't happen," says Vallely. "And so my friends were playing hockey and it was a good outlet. You get out there and play for three or four hours and all you could really think about was showering and sleeping."
Vallely, who successfully completed the rehab program and now attends Chabot College, is so committed to street hockey that he didn't let wheelchair confinement after recent knee surgery keep him from the action -- playing in a game last week he even scored three goals.
For more information on the East Bay Hockey League visit www.eastbayhockeyleague.com.
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