In This Scrappy Street Hockey League, a Deaf Referee Helps Keep the Peace
Updated: May 30, 2018
Bedford + Bowery, May 2018.
In the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, a group of plucky amateurs were facing off in a game of street hockey at Rev. Joseph Moffo Rink. It was the Hammerheads against the Monstars, two teams with a bitter rivalry in the Mofo Hockey League, and the action was chippy from the outset. A defenseman for the Hammerheads jostled in the corner and emerged with the ball – a tangerine-colored sphere designed not to bounce on the asphalt. He flung it up the boards to his teammate, who raced shoulder-to-shoulder with one of the Monstars to retrieve it. They wore sneakers, not roller skates, and even though the surface was 50 feet shorter than a regulation rink, it was exhausting.
“There’s no gliding in street hockey, you’ve always got to be moving,” said Bob Weyersberg, 52, the founder of Mofo Hockey. He was watching the game from outside the rink. “It’s a great cardio workout.”
There’s no body-checking allowed in Mofo Hockey, but the Hammerheads and Monstars frequently collided. By the end of the game, there were 13 penalties. That’s why the league needs people like Joel Cohen, an experienced referee that happens to be hearing-impaired. Although he was born deaf, Cohen said that his talent makes up for his disability. Along with using his whistle to call icing, offsides, and penalties, Cohen creatively uses his hands to signal goals and assists to the scorekeeper.
“The only difficulty I have is when players speak too fast or unclearly, which makes it hard to read their lips,” said Cohen via email. “But it does make things more peaceful in a riled-up game like hockey.”
Mofo Hockey is the outgrowth of another amateur hockey outfit in the city, Blacktop Street Hockey, which Weyersberg ran in the mid-2000s. Around that time, he stumbled upon Moffo Rink while riding his bike on the Lower East Side. Some of Blacktop players started scrimmaging there because nobody was using the space, and eventually, they applied for park permits. Weyersberg said that Blacktop, which is a laid-back league that still plays at Tompkins Square Park, wasn’t competitive enough for a few of the players.
“They wanted more intense and aggressive hockey,” said Weyersberg, “something that used more traditional rules.” So, in 2008, he started Mofo Hockey, where players can stick check, take slap shots, and raise the ball above the crossbar. They play 5-on-5, with three 20-minute periods and a running clock.
Early in the Monstars-Hammerheads game, one of the Monstars got dumped on his behind in the slot, then, in an act of retribution, a player from the Hammerheads got pummelled in the corner. The teams have some bad blood, according to a couple players, the result of competing against the same people year after year. After the first period, the Monstars led 1-0.
In order not to disrupt play, Mofo referees typically warn players verbally before they blow the whistle – if the player is offside, for instance. Cohen, however, has a system of his own. “The understanding is that he uses more hand signals, and officials who work with him are his voice. And it works,” said Hector Melendez, another official. “Joel is one of the best officials in this league.”
Mofo Hockey has 10 teams across two divisions. It costs $2,250 to register a team for the 20-game season and playoffs. Along with bragging rights, the winner in each division gets their name engraved on the Mofo Cup and collects a modest bounty of $250. Cohen works only part-time for Mofo Hockey, earning $60 per game, and he refs in various leagues across the state, from Long Island to Riverbank.
Although it would probably make his job easier, he refuses to get a cochlear implant, because it would be like starting life all over again. He gets paid to be around the sport he loves, and that brings him a great amount of happiness.
“I enjoy refereeing because it’s kind of like an in-box seat watching the game I love most,” said Cohen. “It makes me feel like I’m back in my hometown.”
Cohen was born in Montreal, Quebec, and attended the Oral School for the Deaf, where he learned to speak without using sign language. When he started playing organized hockey at the age of seven, he needed to find a suitable position. “I decided to be a defenseman because I didn’t have to pay much attention to the referee,” said Cohen. “There’s less puck control. So, since I couldn’t hear the whistle, for example, I could look at the referee to see if he motioned for offside.”
When he’s not playing whistleblower, Cohen works as a supervisor at a factory that manufactures hoses in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. There, his thoughts often wander. “I mainly think about my family and kids and other priorities,” said Cohen, who met his wife, Doris, at a convention for the deaf in upstate New York. He was 21 and still living in Canada, so he saved up his money to travel back and forth.
Eventually, he decided to marry her. “Best decision of my life,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to do all this without her. She still cheers me on while I ref.”
Joel and Doris have six children together (Debbie, Michael, Isaac, Joshua, Victoria, and Steven) all between the ages of 15 and 32, along with three grandchildren. Their kids are all hearing, but learned sign language from a young age through rigorous training. “At first, the children preferred to speak and let us lip read, but my wife wouldn’t have it,” said Joel. “It’s been an integral part of raising our children.”
Joel tries to be a role model and daily motivation for his family. “I’m happiest when I’m able to accomplish something that most people thought a deaf person couldn’t,” he said. “I can show my kids that anything is possible.”
In Mofo Hockey, games are played mostly by USA Hockey regulations. But some rules are unique to Moffo Rink, such as where to place the ball when it hits an overhanging tree or slips through a crack in the boards. The rink, unfortunately, is in poor condition. The boards are jagged, the latches on the gates are busted, and there’s even a rusty screw jutting out near one of the corners. According to a couple players, they’ve appealed to the Parks Department without much success.
At the end of the second period, the Monstars were leading 3-1, and their goalie, 25-year-old Joe Kozlowski, wanted to keep the momentum going.
“It’s all about goals, effort, and getting into the right place,” he shouted in the huddle. “We can keep doing that for 20 minutes, no matter how tired we are, no matter how much it sucks, no matter how many sticks we’re getting in the back, in the sides, wherever.” Some of his teammates were paying attention, while others glugged water and stared into the distance.
After the rousing pep talk, one of the Monstars replied dryly, “That was a beautiful speech, Joe.”
The Monstars ended up winning 3-2, much to the delight of Kozlowski.