“Win at home, get killed on the road.”
That’s a pretty funny motto for any adult hockey team. It’s even more humorous when it’s the mantra of a team named the Possums after the frequent road kill victims.
The guys who play for the Possums in the Kansas City Ice Center Adult Hockey League in Shawnee, Kansas, certainly don’t lack a sense of humor.
“We’re just out to have a good time with guys we enjoy being around,” team captain Jeff Smith said. “People who are puck hogs or don’t pass or jerks on the bench or want to fight, they don’t stick around very long. We’ve basically established a rapport with a bunch of people.”
Since the team was established about 15 years ago, there has been a core group of around five players who are mainstays with the Possums every season. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is when you consider that the league holds a draft prior to every season, and team rosters are ever changing.
Prior to each season, the league runs an evaluation skate-around to rate the players based on skill level, generally from 1-5 (5 being the best). The team captains then draft and have an “ability cap,” and aren’t able to pick all 4s or 5s. The high picks have to be offset by taking some 1s and 2s.
“We end up having really close teams, and it doesn’t get very chippy,” said Smith, who is 46 and the team’s goalie. “You don’t have the college kids coming in and blowing everybody out, that sort of thing. I really enjoy it.”
Max Utsler is in his second stint with the Possums and relishes every chance to play with the guys.
“The captains in our league do a really, really good job to try to have eight competitive teams,” said Utsler, who has been on the team for about nine years. “They won’t let anybody load up.”
Smith attempts to draft the same guys every year, but that can be difficult.
"I have had to fight that battle a couple times, but the nice thing is we’ve got that core of four or five guys that I will battle to make sure that we don’t break that up,” Smith said. “Some of the other ones come and go depending on if they move or want to play on a different team — lots of different things happen. But the nice thing about the draft is I can keep that core group, and I can add higher- or lower-level players to balance it out as needed.”
Utsler, who is the oldest player on the Possums at 67, is aware how he fits onto the team.
“I know I’m the lowest rated player on our team, maybe in the whole league,” Utsler joked. “So I play an important role, because it allows us to have some really good guys on the team.”
The Possums range in age from about 30 to late 60s, with the average in the 40s.
“If the team was all 22-year-olds, I wouldn’t want to play on it,” Utsler said. “But it’s an older group, and I imagine we are the oldest team in the league.”
Utsler loves the on-ice chemistry and camaraderie with his teammates. The guys have played together long enough to know one another’s tendencies.
“When we get into the attack zone, everybody knows I’m not going to try to handle the puck,” Utsler said. “I just try to go in front of the net and get in the way of the goalie. I might get a rebound every three years or something like that.”
Smith is hoping to keep the Possums together for years to come. He always looks forward to hitting the ice with the core group of players.
“We’re best friends. We’re hockey buddies,” Smith said. “We know each other’s families, and we get together outside of hockey.”
Utsler, who didn’t learn how to skate until he was 29, doesn’t want to compete on any other team than the Possums.
“If this team disbanded and all these guys moved out of town, I’m done,” Utsler said. “I guess I can civically say I’m not interested in making any new friends. ... I just really like these bunch of guys, so that keeps me coming back.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.