It's 9:30 on a midwinter Thursday night, a time when many suburban dads have tucked their children into bed and have themselves hunkered down in front of the television, watching "SportsCenter" on ESPN.
Matt Bernstein has already kissed his 8-month-old daughter good night and his wife goodbye. In the garage of his Massapequa home, he is making preparations to chill out his own way.
"Step one," he said, opening the trunk of his vehicle. "Take the baby stroller out of the SUV."
Placing the stroller to the side, he then picks up an athletic bag as big as a couch, and heaves it into the trunk.
"Step two. Put the gear into the SUV."
Protruding from the bag are gloves, shin guards and shoulder pads.
Bernstein then produces a small bottle, and puts it in the cupholder by the front seat. One last thing to address, before he goes driving off into the night.
"My postgame Advil," he said with a grin. "I already took my pregame Advil."
Such is life for a 39-year-old who participates -- of his own volition -- in a contact sport generally played by strapping 21-year-olds from Alberta and Minnesota.
Such is life in the Midnight Hockey League.
It was founded in September 1992 to give recreational, adult hockey players more opportunities to suit up -- if to get a little less sleep.
"The idea was to play the games later at night, when the fees at local ice rinks are reduced," said league founder Tom Lynn, 54, of East Northport, who started as a teenager organizing pickup games on frozen ponds.
In the first season, the league included 75 players and six teams whose games were all played in the Town of Huntington rink in Dix Hills. The league now boasts 875 players on 75 teams, using nine rinks in Nassau and Suffolk counties, including Nassau Coliseum after Islanders games. Participants pay $425 each to play a season of 16 games plus playoffs. Although games now start as early as 8 p.m., most still go past midnight, and the name endures.
There are two seasons from October to April, a total of 28 weekly games, plus playoffs. It's a schedule that roughly follows the regular NHL season.
The league's growth speaks to a passion for hockey among a segment of Long Island's population that grew up during the Islanders' Stanley Cup winning streak of the 1980s and still loves the game -- but unlike recreational runners, golfers or softball players, would have few opportunities to play if not for a league like this.
"It's not like you can just go down to the local park and get into a hockey game," said Bernstein, who started playing intramural hockey as an undergraduate at SUNY Plattsburgh.
After graduating in 1996, he wanted to continue, and heard about the Midnight Hockey League. Bernstein, an environmental scientist by profession, has played every season since -- most recently as a defenseman on a team of 40-somethings who call themselves the Jurassic Pucks.
On thin ice
A shrill whistle echoes through the rafters of Superior Ice Rink in Kings Park, and the Pucks, sitting along the bench, stamp their feet and bang their sticks against the wooden boards, as their teammates take the ice. Tonight's opponents are the Seahawks, a team composed largely of players who live in the same neighborhood in Cold Spring Harbor. They practice together regularly -- a distinct advantage over the geographically dispersed Pucks, who see each other about once a week during the season, on game night.
The two teams play in the second of four proficiency levels of the Midnight Hockey League (teams are graded by skill level, from former college players to novices). But you wouldn't know it by the élan they display in tonight's playoff game to decide the winner of their division in a culmination of this season.
Sticks clatter, skates dig into the ice, players pound into each other in pursuit of the puck.
There are, however, no fans cheering them on, no vendors, no announcer. It's just the Jurassic Pucks and the Seahawks, plus two officials and one scorer who are paid by the league.
The absence of a crowd doesn't seem to matter. "It's the highlight of my week!" said the Pucks' Jeff Blum, 45, an attorney from Dix Hills who joined the league eight years ago.
Asked to characterize his team's style of play, he chuckled and said: "We shoot first and ask questions later."
Unfortunately for the Pucks, the Seahawks shoot faster and leave no question as to which is the better team on this night. By the end of the first period, they're up, 3-1. The reaction from the Pucks bench is heated.
"Come on, we can play better than that!"
"What are you doing out there?"
"Let's show some heart."
Tensions flare on the ice a couple of times, particularly as the Seahawks begin to add to their lead. But no one takes a swing. Fights -- so common in the NHL -- are strictly forbidden here. As Lynn notes on the league website, "If you are one of those players who think hockey is not hockey unless you can hit someone, do not register in our league."
As time runs out with the score 8-1, the Pucks' bench falls silent. The Seahawks erupt in cheers and, in grand hockey tradition, mob their goalie. Asked why he continues to play a demanding and time-consuming sport, the Seahawks' John Yaccarino, 47, smiles. "It's still fun to win," he said.
The real goal
"You ask most guys why they play in this league, and they'll tell you it's really about the camaraderie," said Jurassic team captain Jeff Berson, 45, an attorney from Plainview.
Indeed, the mood among the 11 members of the losing team changes abruptly as they stream into the locker room. Now there's laughing and good-natured joshing. But not for too long: It's a half hour past midnight -- and most of these guys have to get up in the morning. How will they get through a day's work tomorrow?
"I'll take a nap during lunch and have a big cup of coffee in the afternoon," jokes the Pucks' goalie, Rob Roth, 38, an IT manager from Centereach.
The sore muscles, the expense ($500 on average for the skates, pads and equipment), the late nights are a small price to pay, they said.
"Once you get hooked on this game," Roth said, "you're hooked for life."
Driving home, and having popped his postgame analgesic, Bernstein is philosophical about the loss.
"I guess it's a good thing we have day jobs," he said. "And hey, the new season starts next week."