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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The mind is willing, so the body doesn’t have much choice

These men, many in their 80s, may have titanium hips and implantable defibrillators. But they plan to play hockey until they go to that big locker room in the sky.

By Andrew Keh

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Mike Duggan and his hockey buddies were strapping on their gear one recent morning when their banter hopscotched, as it frequently does, to the subject of joint replacement surgeries.

Duggan, 74, the proud owner of an artificial hip, marveled at the sheer number of titanium body parts in the locker room. He gestured toward Mitch Boriskin, who was wiggling into a pair of skates along the opposite wall.

“I don’t think there’s an original part on you,” Duggan said.

Boriskin, 70, smiled. “Two fake knees, a spinal cord stimulator, 25 surgeries,” he began, as if reciting a box score.

“And one lobotomy,” Duggan interjected, as laughter rippled across the room.

All that titanium, at least, was being put to good use. Their team, the Oregon Old Growth, had joined dozens of others from around North America to compete this month at the Snoopy Senior hockey tournament in Santa Rosa, about 60 miles north of San Francisco.

The tournament has become a summertime ritual for hundreds of recreational players — all of them between 40 and 90 years old — who gather each year at Redwood Empire Ice Arena, where Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip and a lifelong hockey fanatic, founded the event in 1975.

By now, everyone knows what to expect: The skating is slow, the wisecracks whiz by fast and the laughter flows as freely as the beer.

“If you like paint drying, you will be riveted,” said Larry Meredith, 82, the captain of the Berkeley Bears, a team in the tournament’s 70-plus division.

Playing sports can feel like a young person’s game. Maybe you compete through high school, perhaps find a regular pickup game or beer league after college. But, eventually, families and jobs and the various other encumbrances of adult life conspire to pull you away.

These senior skaters, though, represent a generation that has increasingly pushed back on this timeline. They understand how fitness and camaraderie can be beneficial for both body and mind. They hold on dearly to the games they love, even as their bodies beg them to reconsider.

“You don’t quit because you get old, you get old because you quit,” said Rich Haskell, 86, a player from New Port Richey, Florida. “A friend of mine died a couple years ago. He played hockey in the morning, died at night. You can’t do it better than that.”

The tournament has the unbent feel of a week-and-a-half-long summer camp. Camper vans and recreational vehicles crowd the arena parking lot, where players drink beer, grill meat and fraternize between games.

The squad names this year — California Antiques, Michigan Oldtimers, Seattle Seniles and Colorado Fading Stars, to name a few — nodded at players’ advanced age and evolved sense of humor.

“We used to just be the Colorado Stars,” said Rich Maslow, 74, the team’s goalie. “But then we turned 70.”

Maslow and his teammates were scheduled to play that day at 6:30 a.m., the earliest slot, which meant they had to assemble before sunrise.

“We all have to get up at 5:30 to pee anyway, so we might as well play some hockey,” said Craig Kocian, 78, of Arvada, Colorado, as they dressed for the game.

Kocian described himself as having “adult onset hockey syndrome.” But many other participants began playing when they were children and let the game weave itself through the decades of their lives.

Among them was Terry Harper, 83, who played in 19 seasons as a defenseman in the NHL. When he retired, he threw away his equipment, he said, and for the next 10 years stayed away from the ice. But in 1992, a neighbor coaxed him to Santa Rosa, and Harper, who grew up playing in his backyard in Saskatchewan, felt some long dormant pleasure center reactivate in his brain.

“I came here and had the greatest time I’ve had in hockey, ever,” said Harper, who, it must be noted, won five Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens. “There wasn’t the pressure, the travel. I found out hockey is fun.”

Harper, playing for the Bears, took his time on the ice. Changing directions, for one thing, required a couple more beats than it once did. But his stickhandling and anticipation betrayed his expertise, and he was smiling throughout the game, even after getting whacked in the face.

“I took a stick to my chin!” Harper shouted happily as he skated to the bench, putting out his tongue to check for blood.

Harper and the other players said hockey simply made them feel good. It gave them a method and a reason to stave off the natural effects of aging.

And by gliding on skates, they could actually generate some speed.

“If we tried to run, we wouldn’t go anywhere,” Maslow said.

But the players also hinted at something less tangible, some swirl of selfhood and ritualism and sense memory, that week after week lured them back to the ice.

“It’s part of who I am, and that feeling is really powerful,” Meredith said about playing hockey. “Maybe that’s why I hang on, because it hearkens back to going to a rink, smelling those smells that you can only find in an indoor ice rink, those hockey smells.”

Schulz, the “Peanuts” creator, was the same way. He ate breakfast and lunch at the rink, which he had built and opened in 1969. Spending most days grinding away at the drawing board, he saw his Tuesday night games as something of a spiritual salve.

“He used to say, ‘It’s the only thing that gives me pleasure,’ ” said Jean Schulz, his widow.

He played until he died, at the age of 77, in 2000. Many players said they would like to do the same.

But if the specter of injury and bodily impermanence hovers over the tournament, the older players defuse it with dark humor.

Bob Carolan, 82, a retired pulmonologist from Eugene, Oregon, recalled an incident about 15 years ago in which he resuscitated a player on the ice who was having a heart attack.

“The best play I ever made at Snoopy,” said Carolan, who ran into the same man at a tournament 10 years later. “He had an implantable defibrillator, but he was still playing.”

After their early morning game, the Fading Stars came off the ice and stripped away their gear. Out came a case of Coors Light. It was 7:40 a.m. Noticing the beer company’s logo on the team’s sweaters, a visitor asked if it was a sponsor.

“The only sponsorship we’re looking for is Viagra,” said Murray Platt, 68, of Denver.

Also grabbing a cold one was Dave McCay, 72, of Denver, who scored four goals in the team’s opening game, sprained an ankle in the second and arrived for the third in a walking boot.

That leg had given him trouble before — he held up a photo showing 12 screws, a steel rod and a plate in it — and his wife had already begun gently questioning his priorities. But slowing down has not crossed his mind.

“I’m convinced this gives you a better quality of life,” McCay said, leaning on a pair of crutches, “even if you have to limp around a little bit.”

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