How I got sober playing beer league hockey

November 16, 2021
How I got sober playing beer league hockey
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This First Person column is the experience of Lyle Mustard who lives in Winnipeg and has been sober for four years. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

There’s nothing more Canadian than hockey. Except maybe the coupling of beer and hockey together.

I started playing hockey seven years ago because I wanted to get closer to my friends. Most of them played hockey together, so joining the team made a lot of sense.

But there’s no getting around it: I sucked at hockey. I didn’t know where to position myself. I couldn’t hold onto the puck. Although I had played hockey growing up, I only played until I was 15 and in the lowest division. 

Many of my teammates had played high-level junior hockey. And even the ones that didn’t – by now they had been playing on the team for over a decade, honing their skills. I had some catching up to do.

This wasn’t an easy task. The first three years were a blur. I was outgunned and outmatched in every aspect of the game. And I didn’t feel that I was growing.

There was a reason I felt stuck — behind closed doors I was unsuccessfully trying to drink my rampant anxiety away.

Lyle Mustard has been sober for four years. (Lyle Mustard)

Two days before I turned 35, I woke up from my second blackout night in a row — this was becoming a pattern on the weekends. It was time for a drastic change.

I cleaned up and got sober. 

And you might think that I did that by giving up my beer league hockey. 

It’s an aggressive and exhausting sport followed by a room full of men drinking a refreshing, well-earned beer. But to my delight and surprise, sticking with it was one of the best decisions I could have made.

As it turns out, I have great friends that accepted this change in my life, without pressure or judgment, from the moment I told them in the dressing room post-game. Every now and again they ask how long it’s been since I’ve been sober and congratulate me on this change I’ve made for myself. Their curiosity warms my heart, and their sincere congratulations remind me that they truly support my effort towards a healthy and happy life.

Before the change, I had hidden my addiction so well that they had no idea I was struggling with alcoholism. 

I didn’t drink in the daytime so I never showed up intoxicated. But one friend commented on how much I drank in the dressing room, thinking that was excessive. I told him that the five light beers after the game were just a prelude to the 15 that I drank alone once I got home.

Now, once we step off the ice, the crack of crisp beer echoes around the dressing room from each hand.

Each hand except for mine, of course. And I don’t pine for it. 

I’m happy to share the room as I am, and with them as they are.

After a game, Lyle Mustard’s beer hockey league teammates share drinks but he doesn’t partake anymore. (Lyle Mustard)

Sometimes their understanding falls short. When I played my first ever two-goal game, some of them urged me to celebrate with a beer. But one beer isn’t an option – I don’t have an off switch.

Hockey is still an uphill challenge for me, but sober Lyle actually likes that.

Because sober Lyle actually improves. And sober Lyle isn’t exhausted all day, every day.

Now, after years of seeing them every week, I have a close bond with the boys. I get invited out to events. I know about their lives. I know their kids. It’s beautiful.

And on top of that, after every game I get to reaffirm the strength of my choice to stay sober.

One time, I even brought beer for one of the games. We have a regular “beer guy” on the team, and when he can’t play he asks someone else to take the reins and bring the supply for the whole team. There was one day that nobody else could do it, so I volunteered.

I am grateful that I have this regular opportunity to test that resolve. And it’s no longer even a question. Now it’s just what I do.

I know this won’t work for every person that struggles with addiction – this is not a “how-to” article. But this is my story.

And now I get to truly learn, for the first time, how to play our wonderful winter pastime well. I get to enjoy the experience of bringing a competitive edge to the ice. 

Because of sobriety, I know the exquisite satisfaction of sending a pass perfectly from tape to tape. And I know what it is to truly feel a part of my beer hockey league — while being stone-cold sober.


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