I first became interested in unicycle hockey because a friend of mine kept breaking his foot while doing it.
After the second fracture, my friend tried to ameliorate his temporary handicap by purchasing what was essentially a peg-leg, which he could kind of hop around on, but the inconveniences of having a disabled pirate at work caused his colleges to tersely suggest he quit the club.
So I ascended the stone staircase to the Morris Community Center in Chatham alone last Friday, passing dog-eared posters promoting zumba and other events held at the center, which looked like it used to be some sort of bank.
Keith Nelson, who, when not playing unicycle hockey, is a performer and organizer with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, was perched on the edge of a beaten-to-hell couch in the community center’s lounge, sliding on a black glove with the x-ray image of finger bones etched on it.
As Keith geared up and the rest of the unicycle enthusiasts leaked in, I asked him if the group should be referred to as a “club.”
“There’s a unicycle club that meets every Sunday,” he said. “[On Fridays] it’s just kind of a pick-up game…I’d say Friday is more of a gang than a club.”
The “Hell on Wheels” gang, specifically. One of the members showed an old t-shirt the gang had printed up, which looked like something NASCAR produced for middle schoolers.
The gang wore reversible jerseys originally worn by a Chatham High School Team. The gang joked they had beat up the high school basketball team for them.
Keith first started the gang in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in “a little bitty basement of a health club,” he said.
“Basically, (it was) where these kids wrestled, so we had to move wrestling mats, and try not to bump into the pole in the middle of the floor, or the low pipes,” Keith said.
“It was a little more hazardous,” he added.
As a circus performer, everyone assumed Keith could unicycle, but a “mid-life crisis” actually convinced him to learn, he joked.
The rules of unicycle hockey are basically the same as floor hockey, though the gang doesn’t play with penalties. Also, Keith said, if someone is just beginning the sport, “they can play kind of lawless.”
“So if you played,” Keith said to me, “you could be pretty lawless.”
I asked him if there were any limitations to this.
“You can’t put a limit on lawlessness,” he pointed out.
Most of the eight players had assembled, pulling on black protective gear while sitting the ring of ass-frayed couches. The community center, with its pool table and mantle adorned with heavy plastic trophies, had the feel of a club house, and the unicyclists all knew each other well, making a lot of contextual jokes I did not get.
Danielle Bety got into unicycle hockey through her partner, Tony Carrano, who she said hung out with a lot of circus folk.
“Unicyclists receive a barrage of ‘original’ jokes,” she said. A common one was, “where’s your other wheel?” A good response to the jibe, Tony said, was, “what, in this economy?” An alternate response was, “you lose half of everything in a divorce.”
Unicycle hockey “goes against everything you learn about unicycling,” Danielle said, since a player must lean over to hit the ball, instead of displaying the erect posture usually emphasized in unicycling.
The gang assembled in the gym, and the hockey sticks were thrown into a loose pile on the scarred wooden floor. Keith tossed the sticks to either side of the pile to make teams, and the gang started the game.
Someone had jacked the gym’s sound system on, and a playlist of Outkast, Jimmy Hendrix, Public Enemy and “Heat Wave” clanged around the gym. The players charged and twisted around the floor, slapping the ball through the air.
The gang frequently bailed from their unicycles as they started to tip, leaping off to the side as the contraptions slammed to the floor and skittered past other players. The players also commonly went down with their unicycles, which was always followed by a chorus of, “You Ok?”
There was another person snapping photos of the players, Ghent-based photographer Zach Neven, who is a much better photographer than am I. He showed me the best ways to shoot the game without getting checked, and tried to get me to stop blinding the players as I kept shooting my flash directly into their faces.
Though the gang never attended due to their summer hiatuses, the Unicycle Society of America holds an annual week-long competition and convention every August, which includes a unicycle hockey competition.
Keith said he had played a pick-up game at one of the conventions.
“We could’ve killed,” he said.
“Not much competition?” I asked.
“I did not see ‘competition,’ he dead-panned.
The gang took a water break about every thirty minutes, and ended up playing for almost 2 hours. Playing hockey while simultaneously trying to not fall off something is a major workout, and everyone was soaked with sweat by the end of it.
Eric Carr said he started playing 10 years ago with his son, Will, who was 11 at the time and is also part of the gang
“Your guts hurt so much the first time,” Eric said.
Eric had obviously gotten past that point, and said he now did long-distance unicycling, like pedaling for 10-20 miles down a rail trail in Millteron. He also mentioned the annual NYC Unicycle Festival, which had its 8th year last summer, and includes a huge gaggle of unicyclists riding across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Eric wiped the remaining sweat beads from his face.
“I never felt healthier than since I started…it changed my life,” he said.
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