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The past few months have been a roller-coaster ride for St. Louis Blues center Keith Tkachuk. In September he led Team USA to the semifinals in the World Cup of Hockey. In a quarterfinal game broadcast around the world, Tkachuk scored an amazing four goals to propel the U.S. team to a 5-3 victory over the Russians.
These days Tkachuk is far removed from the pageantry of World Cup Hockey and the National Hockey League. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights he's just one of the boys, skating with the lunch-pail crew in the Brentwood Hockey League.
Tkachuk is one of a handful of St. Louis Blues players -- including Doug Weight, Jamal Mayers and Barret Jackman -- who joined the amateur league after the NHL lockout began on September 16. With no end in sight to the labor dispute, these Blues have abandoned all hopes of winning a Stanley Cup this season. Now they're skating for the prized Fruit of the Loom T-shirts awarded to the Brentwood Hockey League's championship winners.
For years the BHL has hosted the region's premier amateur hockey players. Most players in this eighteen-and-older league have played high-school and junior hockey. A few of the players have gone on to skate in college or even enjoyed brief careers in the NHL, but any dreams of returning to the pros have long since faded.
"Make no mistake about it: This league is in no way a stepping stone to the NHL," says Gregg Flier, a balding 45-year-old who sponsors the Flier Motors hockey team. In recent weeks Tkachuk, Weight and Jackman have joined Flier's team, making his the club to beat in the BHL.
Since joining the team, the Blues players have brought Flier Motors from cellar-dwellers to a respectable record of four wins and four losses. In a recent game against the team sponsored by Corwin's Bar and Restaurant, Flier won 5-3. Earlier in the season, the same team -- sans Weight and Jackman -- fell easily to the Corwin gang, losing 13-7.
"Sure they help out the team," says Flier. "But they tone it down a bit. If they played as they do in the NHL, there are a lot of us who would never touch the puck."
So what drives these pros to play with rank amateurs?
"It's just a lot of fun," says a sweaty Tkachuk after leading Flier Motors to yet another victory. "I'm having a blast out here. Am I playing as hard as I do in the NHL? No, not really. But these guys are pretty good. I'm impressed."
Not all Blues players have warmed up to the idea of playing with the amateurs.
"I think some players were disheartened by the level of play," admits Brad Barbeau, coordinator and commissioner of the BHL, who tried to add the Blues players to several different teams in the league.
Blues forward Ryan Johnson showed up to play for a team sponsored by the law firm of Reinert & Rourke but never returned after the first game.
"At any time he could skate circles around us," recalls 31-year-old Nick Rizer, a forward on the team. Rizer says Johnson never quite fit in with the team chemistry. "One of us asked him about his exercise regime, and he said he works out five to six hours a day. I was like, 'Damn, I don't work out that much in a year.'"
Other players have had a less difficult time adapting to the league. They've learned to trade fame, multimillion-dollar salaries and legions of devoted fans for simple rewards like beer and small tokens of their teammates' appreciation. After a few pitchers following a game last month, players on the Flier Motors team presented Weight with a puck in honor of his first BHL goal.
Regardless of how they fit in, nearly all longtime BHL members agree that the addition of the pros has helped elevate everyone's game.
Suddenly, passes are crisper. Shots are right on. Players are moving faster to the puck. In short, no one wants to look bad -- not against the pros. Then there's the fantasy aspect of it all. Here are insurance agents, construction workers and salesmen going head-to-head with some of the NHL's best players. Who doesn't want to tell his buddy he won a face-off against Tkachuk, a guy who earned $10 million last season?
"Yeah, I've told a few friends that I've played against the Blues," concedes John Ferrara, an agent with AAA Insurance, whose team recently lost to a Flier Motors lineup of Tkachuk, Weight and Jackman. "It certainly makes the games a lot more exciting."
But commissioner Barbeau notes that if Flier Motors is to win the league, it's going to have to do so with a little less star power. He says he plans to talk to the team before next week's game. Part of the fun of the Brentwood league has always been its parity, and Barbeau wants to stomp out any team's attempt to Steinbrenner its way to dominance.
"I think three Blues players on the same team is just too unfair," he says. "I'm going to put a clamp on it before someone complains."