WASHINGTON – The puck was skittering around center ice when Bill Oliver gathered it in with his stick, weaved his way through traffic into the offensive zone, skated free of a closing defenseman and wristed a shot into the corner of the net.
Oliver is 72 and has been skating since he was 18 months old, when his father, serving in the Canadian Air Force, mailed him a pair of hockey skates. He started skating on the ponds and backyard rinks that dotted his hometown of St. Catharine’s in Ontario and has been playing hockey ever since. He has all his teeth, a triumph.
Oliver is one of a couple of dozen players age 70 or older who, despite age, illness and some artificial joints, show up to skate on Tuesday mornings at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Maryland. They come for the exercise and also because it keeps them off the streets and is better for the aging process than, say, staring at shopping channels on TV.
Some are cancer survivors. Several have had heart attacks and open heart surgery. At least one has a pacemaker. The number of bypassed arteries is around 20 or 25. There are several artificial knees, various arthroscopic procedures, a half-dozen repaired rotator cuffs and about a dozen stents. And there have been lots and lots of stitches.
The winner of this marvels-of-medicine sweepstakes, a dubious distinction, appears to be Frank Early, 75. He has had two heart attacks and bypass surgery — and he has a lung half-lost to cancer, three back surgeries, which took some disks and about 7.5 cm of bone, a repaired rotator cuff and a missing toe. He plays defense. And as people in the game know, best not mess with Frank.
Runnerup in the category is probably Marv Stocker, nearly 70, a Vietnam vet and a General Electric sales and marketing guy for 37 years. He’s had quintuple bypass surgery, then five stents, a new knee, a rotator cuff and two foot surgeries.
This eclectic group operates under the general banner of the Gerihatricks, a loose assembly of older but avid hockey players that was started in 1999 by Bill Wellington. Wellington invented the name, a play on “hat trick,” denoting the singular feat of a player scoring three times in one game. He went on to play into his 80s and had both hips replaced along the way.
The Gerihatricks also run pickup games for 50s and older at the Ice House on Mondays and Wednesdays. But the Tuesday game is reserved for 70 and up, though the informal rules say a couple of 68s are okay, and 65 works if one is bionic in any way. Exceptions, as well, for women, who can play at any age.
Two do so regularly, and both are well under 70. One is a goalie, Cathy Sellars, mother of four, who has been playing just under five years and sports a bright pink jersey. Why goalie? Her son’s team needed one, her brother was a goalie, and she thought that was pretty cool. She didn’t know how to skate, but she was a gymnast, so why not? “The first season was brutal,” she said, but skating and goalie lessons helped.
She was recruited to the 70s game by Dick Baker, 72, a mover and shaker of youth and adult hockey in Howard County, Maryland, who also helped run a travel agency and sold pianos.
The other woman is Sarah Brooks, drawn to the game by her daughter, who started skating and playing at age 6. After watching for a few years, Brooks decided to try. She liked it and eventually found her way to the Gerihatricks, then the only woman, and thence to the 70s game. “I remember that first day on the bench,” she says. “Everyone was talking about their PSA scores. I thought it was some sort of rating system in hockey that I didn’t know about.” Realization soon dawned that they were talking about prostate-specific antigen testing to detect prostate cancer.
Tom Latona is the referee, who, at 49, has been at it for 20 years. He hasn’t called many roughing penalties in this game. He does see what he terms “nasty play” in some adult leagues, but not in this game: “These guys seem to have figured it out — how to keep enjoying the game and each other’s company.”
Seventy-year-old Pat Corey, who sells cars, plays because his father froze the front lawn of his Detroit area home when Corey was 4. Tom Tanton, also 70 and a retired doctor, started playing on the frozen lakes of northern New Jersey and then floor hockey in all-purpose rooms of various churches in the area. As he recalls it, “we were expelled from some very nice Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal venues because of excessive noise, damages and conflicts with choirs.”
Steve Scoville, 71, was the “stick boy” for the teams that came to play the long-ago Washington Lions of the Eastern Hockey League. That gave him ice time, along with lots of sticks broken in the game. And other things: “Players were always giving me their dental plates and bridges to keep safe during a game.”
Frozen ponds figure prominently in the histories of these players.
That’s certainly true for Oliver, who played on bantam and midget teams that won provincial championships in Ontario. He was helped, no doubt, by the fact that a couple of his teammates were Stan Mikita and Gerry Cheevers, both subsequent NHL Hall of Famers. Oliver played for Cornell University and eventually ended up in Baltimore, the longtime owner of a couple of restaurants (including the Wharf Rat) and a microbrewery (Oliver Ales).
Earl Silbert started playing on Boston-area ponds as a kid. A lawyer, he served as the U.S. attorney in Washington and was instrumental in prosecuting the Watergate burglars, leading to the subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon. Even today at age 77, he says, the game still draws him like “a magnet.”
Bob Moran, 68, who spent 30 years as an FBI agent, was a Boston-area pond skater in his formative years, as was Joe Tarbox, 79, who is the retired vice president of a small electronics firm.
Clark Torell, 71, who built power stations for Bechtel, began skating on frozen construction ponds in New Jersey. He started playing hockey while wearing speed skates and went on to play for Colgate University.
Bob Ruppel and his young accomplices carefully dammed a small Pittsburgh-area creek to divert water into an adjoining hollow, producing a makeshift pond. Now 80, he formerly sold greeting cards.
Bob Reischauer, 71, an economist who alternately ran the Congressional Budget Office (scoring of a different kind) and the Urban Institute for a total of 18 years, played hockey in junior high and high school in the Boston area. He played club hockey in college rather than for the college team because the latter “seemed like a full-time occupation, and I was more interested in women and studies.”
Iver Mindel, a former high school math teacher, played a lot of lacrosse, but he got a taste of hockey in college. Now 68, he returned to hockey in his later years and, for a couple of seasons, wore his lacrosse helmet while playing.
Many have played with or against each other in various leagues and organized pickup games over the years. So they come out because of the camaraderie, for the love of hockey and for the exercise in this spirited but relatively relaxed version of the game.
Hockey is, after all, a game of great speed, fluid grace, nimble athleticism and geometric precision, and I go out because I want to be around in case anything like that ever happens while I’m there.
Wilkinson, 76, is a former assistant managing editor at The Washington Post. A cancer survivor with an artificial knee, he regularly plays with the Gerihatricks.