The plastic wheels of my heavy, equipment bag screech across the frozen snow as we head to the entrance of my local arena. At 75, after a 35-year hiatus, I threw caution to the wind and in a moment of unbridled indiscretion – I started playing old-timers’ hockey. My English-immigrant dad used to tell me: “son, you know I don’t feel old on the inside”. This type of aphorism would normally take place on father and son days, usually in an aluminum fishing boat, tortuously early in the morning while anchored dead centre on an ice-cold river. My dad loved to fish. We moved from rural Ontario to deep in the backwoods, New Brunswick when I was eleven years old. I soon discovered that New Brunswick had long, brutal winters but lots and lots of ice. My dad organized his new scout troop and half a dozen older teenagers, to kick the boards off an old barn and help build a rink adjacent to the Nashwaak River-- that conveniently flowed by our doorstep. I spent many hours with frozen feet under the lights of our four 100-watt bulb rink. New Brunswick had eight months of winter and any kid that could afford a pair of skates (sometimes gum boots) played hockey. By the time I was thirteen I was working in the family business (a gas station, restaurant, and ‘canteen’ (general store in NB speak)) so I always had some cash on hand. I was therefore appointed (by default) “goaltender” since I could afford the used hockey equipment. The ice was rough, often huge cracks would appear overnight that would put you on your backside like a “WWA Smackdown”. Not to be deterred, my teammates would continue the rhythmic ‘clapping’ sound of the frozen puck bouncing off the old boards and each other's sticks and the cacophony would carry on down the ice disappearing in the mist of a 100-watt fog.
I’m now a qualified “old-timer” and after a back operation, knee operation, plus two years of intermittent treatment for prostate cancer, (not to mention the relentless hounding from my best buds) -- I’m once again strapping on goalie equipment after what seems a lifetime off the ice. In this incarnation I’m surrounded in the dressing room by a bunch of old guys greatly diverse in their weathering but like myself - searching for that (so damn brief) moment when you are transported back in time. Every young player has a unique ‘hockey moment’ that is frozen in his or her memory -- my ‘moment’ arrived on our home-made rink in the heat of action after abruptly landing on my back, looking up through the swinging shadows of a 100-watt bulb, at a sky full of winter stars. I lay there semi-winded while attempting to suck in a lungful of ice-cold fog while thinking to myself: “I love hockey more than any other sport in the world”.
We journey back to the present moment, now sitting in the change room, I am surrounded by semi-clad, super geriatrics, former athletes, all lacing up (with considerable effort) their thirty to fifty-year-old equipment. The change room culture that was originally spawned in numerous old, cold, indoor, and outdoor arenas, again dominates (like our younger selves). My compadres crack jokes, rag on about forgetfulness, old age, and last week’s self-depreciating highlights. The room laughs uproariously as we gird ourselves like aging gladiators before a battle. Two of the organizer types collect our dues and generally facilitate this by-weekly time travel adventure back to our fleeting youth.
Many of the older guys are already stoically treading over the rubberized flooring, masking their aches and pains, anxious to skate out onto the new ice where the magic takes place. Lenny and Richard are our oldest guys both in their early eighties, followed by a batch of septuagenarian sharp shooters, but the bulk of guys are in their active sixties. Occasionally, we have a younger guy or two healing from injuries incurred from the more aggressive (and faster) “Senior’s hockey”. This isn’t the hockey I remember from 35 years ago. No one here wants to go down from a ‘check’ or be skated off on the boards. When two players collide – they hang on to each other for stability. When someone falls from tripping up or from accidental contact, several players skate up to the wreckage and call out: “you okay?”
The warriors over eighty are cut some serious slack as no one ‘poke checks’ or tries to strip them of the puck without making it too obvious. Everyone on the ice is respected and the good-natured fun is extended to both sides as they attempt to set up our two octogenarian goal scorers. This is ‘feel good’ hockey at it’s best -- on and off the ice. We collectively conjure the magic of our youth, (albeit in twenty second bursts) but long gone is the ability to leap over the boards for line changes or long, strenuous, shifts. Our game is also devoid of any chippy attitudes or braggadocio found in the younger teams. We have lost that youthful desperation to explode like a supernova and replaced it with calm, schooled, cooperation, and the ability to capitalize on some serious ‘fun’ again.
For my part, I stand at the end of the ice in my solitary ‘crease’ and witness this amazing transformation of aging players reinhabiting their youth. I hear the familiar slap of the frozen puck off the boards and each others sticks; I hear the calls “Yea! -Yea! -Yea!” when a player is ‘open’ and for a moment (practically a split second) I visualize the swinging shadows of my old rink’s 100-watt bulbs overhead and I hear the slicing sound of the skates cutting through the top veneer of river ice as the grey hoard emerges from the evening fog…headed in my direction. I grip my goalie stick and gulp a huge lungful of ice-cold air, and think to myself … “I love hockey more than any other sport in the world”.
About the Author
Duncan Morris is a former marathon runner, Canoe pro boat racer at a national level and the owner and president of Traditional Log Homes Ltd., an international log home company (Est 1979) until his retirement at 71. His articles have appeared in “Marathon and Beyond” magazine, “Log Home Living” and the German magazine “Block Haus”. He has written about marathons for “The Salmon Arm Observer” and his life in Bangkok for “Friday AM News” (of which he is their monthly cartoonist).