Hockey Night in Zurich

Draft makes beer league thrive “112 leagues below the NHL”

Story and Photos by Casey Lessard

It doesn’t draw the crowds like Toronto or Detroit, but the Zurich Recreational Hockey League, or ZRHL, certainly draws the players.
“We have a waiting list of sometimes 20 players waiting to get in,” says convener Jason Schilbe. “We have guys coming from London, Clinton, St. Marys, Exeter.”
The league draws them in because they know they have a chance to win in any given year. Unique to beer leagues in the area, the ZRHL operates a draft every year where two captains from each of eight teams pick players from the pool. No two years are identical, and that keeps everyone on their toes.
“The draft means you’re with different guys every year,” says Jamie Rader of Zurich. “Any team can win on a given night. Seems to work well.”
The draft has helped Zurich’s league stay alive while others have faltered.
“A couple leagues in Exeter tried it where you picked your own team,” Schilbe says. “The same team won every year so it faded out. This league has been around for 52 years, I think.”
The league started after the junior team left town, leaving young men with nowhere to play. It started out with two teams and now has eight.
“The idea is to pick a goalie first,” he says, explaining how to succeed as a captain. “If you have a good goalie, you’re all set, so usually the goalies go first.”
One other twist was introduced a couple of years ago when the NHL did the same: shootouts to resolve ties.
“You always have a winner,” Schilbe says. “When the NHL went to it, everyone saw it and liked the idea.”
Varna’s Mark Buruma is impressed with his experience. This is his second year playing in ZRHL.
“It’s probably the most organized rec league around,” he says. “It’s all about the beer. This is a beer league.”
Brent Durand of Zurich concurs.
“I’m a lifer. Love of the game and playing with friends. Plus the arena’s beside the beer store.”
Then there’s the allure of winning it all in the league self-described as 112 leagues below the NHL.
“I actually scored the overtime goal to clinch the championship one year,” says Bryan Denomme of Exeter. “We went undefeated that season.”
Nevin Hodgins, a five-year veteran, hasn’t been so lucky.
“I haven’t. This could be the year. It would be the dream of a lifetime.”
Playoffs start this week with the Devils and Bruins leading their respective divisions.
“Playoffs are best of five, so each team is guaranteed two rounds,” Schilbe says. “The season runs 17 regular season games, and up to 15 playoff games. It’s a long season.”
Almost as long as the NHL’s.

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