The Ice Pack

Seniors lace up and hit the rink for invigorating games of hockey

December 23, 2005|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

Late on a Thursday night, the lobby of Northwest Ice Rink transforms into a frenzied locker room, with shirts flying, as a score of men assume the highly padded personas of ice hockey players.

Out on the rink, veteran Bob Ruppel is already passing the puck and warming up his 73-year-old machinery. He's soon joined by 68-year-old Gene Brzezicki. As player after player takes to the ice - some wearing blue jerseys, some in white - the anticipation grows. Before long, the acrid scent of artificial ice is laced with whiffs of adrenaline.

It's time for another amicable showdown between the Blues and Whites of the Over The Hill? Gang.

For the past 30 years, this diverse group of skaters - there are businessmen, salesmen, physicians, a restaurant owner - has shared a love for hockey and a disdain for the notion of age limits.

"One of our favorite mottos is `The older I get, the better I was,' " says 50-year-old John Kelly.

As they hit the rink for a weekly scrimmage, Ruppel, Bob Gross and Al Gettier are among the seventysomethings. Brzezicki, Jerry Spivak and Bill Oliver bear the standard for the 60s. There's a whole bunch in their 50s, including Steve Cohen, Larry Mason, Bill Smillie and Mike Cranfield.

Actually, there are a few babies, like Bruce Koski. He's only 40. But as a goalie, he's used to special treatment.

The group plays no-check hockey in two-minute shifts: Two minutes on ice, two minutes off. There is no need for referees with these folks. "It's very genteel in terms of how we bump into each other," Kelly says. "Any collisions are strictly accidental."

When Bud Hardwick started leading the group in 1975, his first goal was to find a way to split up ice time equitably - a contentious matter for most pick-up skaters.

"It was an anti-ice hog thing," the 79-year-old says. "You had guys who didn't want to come off the damn ice, even though you were on your honor to skate equal time."

Hardwick devised a system where everyone would pay in advance for a season of once-a-week skating at Northwest - and share ice time by rotating in two-minute shifts at the sound of the buzzer.

"Everybody has their own personality differences, but we all get along," says 52-year-old Steve Cohen, who took over the group's leadership with Larry Mason when Hardwick recently moved out of town. "It's something we look forward to doing every week. It's exercise, but we're having fun doing it."

More older players

Consider them part of the growing forward line of senior "pucksters."

Of roughly 77,000 amateur adult hockey players registered with USA Hockey, almost 4,500 are now 50 or older. Fifteen years ago, there were only 570 senior players.

"We're seeing a real demand for 50-and-over tournaments, and we're headed toward a 60-and-over division," says Scott Aldrich of USA Hockey.

Last year, the organization attracted four teams from around the United States to the first 50-plus division in its national tournament. This year, 24 teams are expected to compete in the annual competition held near Tampa, Fla.

"We're continually amazed at the level these guys are still playing," Aldrich says. "Most of them have played all their lives. The games are taken very seriously, but in a different way when you're 55 than when you're 25. Older players tend to treat hockey as a way to go out, have a good time, still play and get some exercise."

The changing demographics of ice hockey signal a boost for senior fitness, says Ed McFarland, professor of orthopedic surgery in the division of sports medicine and shoulder surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

As sporting pastimes go, senior ice hockey is relatively harmless. Most older players embrace the game's important safety factors. They wear helmets and face masks and ban body-checking - the rough blocking that ratchets up physical damage along with the crowd's enthusiasm.

"The vast number of injuries in younger players are contact-related," McFarland says. "Fortunately, in the older group, the injury rate is a lot less."

The most common preventable injuries, he says, are muscle strains of the groin and abdomen, often caused by skating rapidly and changing direction. He recommends exercises to strengthen hip and abdominal muscles.

Some members of the Over the Hill? Gang also run or play other sports, including basketball, during the week. Others, like Kelly, skate with additional groups.

Ruppel plays in Laurel with the Geri-Hatricks (the name refers to a "hat trick," when a player scores three or more goals in a game). The coach there is 83-year-old Bill Wellington, who started the group six years ago to field a team for the first National Senior Games Association Winter Olympics in 2000. The Geri-Hatricks now have teams for men in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

Hockey high

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