One recent morning, Mike Duggan and his hockey buddies were packing up and, as is often the case, the joke was playing stepping stones on the subject of joint replacement surgery.
A proud hip replacement owner, 74-year-old Duggan marveled at the sheer number of titanium body parts in the locker room. He gestured toward Mitch Boriskin, who was skating along the opposite wall.
“I don’t think you have anything original,” Duggan said.
Boriskin, 70, smiled. “Two fake knees, a spinal cord stimulator, 25 surgeries,” he begins, reciting a box score.
“And one lobotomy,” Duggan interjected as laughter rippled through the room.
At least the titanium was all put to good use. Their team, the Oregon Old Growth, joined dozens of other teams from across North America this month for the Snoopy Senior Hockey Tournament in Santa Rosa, Calif., about 90 miles north of San Francisco.
The tournament has become a summer ritual for hundreds of recreational players, all between the ages of 40 and 90, who flock to the Redwood Empire Ice Arena each year. This is where Charles M. Schultz, author of the comic strip “Peanuts” and lifelong hockey enthusiast founded the event in his 1975.
Now everyone knows what to expect. Skate slow, smart words flow fast, and laughter flow as free as beer.
“If you like drying paint, you’re going to nail it,” said Larry Meredith, 82, captain of the Barkley Bears, who are in the tournament’s 70-plus division.
Playing sports can feel like a youth game. You might compete until high school, or you might participate in regular pick-up games or beer leagues after college. Ultimately, though, family, work, and all the other annoyances of adulthood conspire to pull you apart.
But these senior skaters represent a generation that is further and further back on this timeline. They understand how fitness and camaraderie are beneficial to both body and mind. They continue to cherish the games they love even though their bodies are asking them to reconsider.
“You don’t quit because you’re old, you’re old because you quit,” said Rich Haskell, 86, an athlete from Newport Richie, Florida. “A friend of mine died a few years ago. He played hockey in the morning and died in the evening. You can’t do better than that.”
This tournament has the feel of a week and a half summer camp. Campers and his RV crowd the arena parking lot, where players drink beer, grill meat, and socialize between games.
This year’s team names (California Antiques, Michigan Old-Timers, Seattle Senaires and Colorado Fading Stars, to name a few) nod to the aging and evolving sense of humor of their players.
“It used to be just the Colorado Stars,” said team goaltender Rich Maslow, 74. “But then we turned 70.”
Maslow and his teammates were due to play at 6:30 a.m., the earliest available time of the day, so they had to meet before sunrise.
“Everyone has to get up at 5:30 to piss anyway, so maybe we should play hockey,” said Craig Kosian, 78, of Albada, Colorado, as he dressed for the game.
Kosian described himself as having “adult-onset hockey syndrome.” However, many other participants began playing games as children and have interwoven them over decades of their lives.
Among them was Terry Harper, 83, who played 19 seasons as a defenseman in the NHL. He said that when he retired, he ditched his tools and stayed off the ice for the next decade. But in 1992, when his neighbors lured him to Santa Rosa and he grew up playing in his backyard in Saskatchewan, Mr. Harper felt the long-dormant pleasure centers reactivate in his brain.
“Coming here, I had the best time of my hockey life,” Harper said. It’s worth noting that Harper won the Stanley Cup five times with the Montreal Canadiens. “There was no travel or pressure. I found hockey to be fun.”
Harper, who plays for the Bears, spent some time on the ice. For example, it took a few more beats than before to change directions. But his stick-handling and anticipation betrayed his expertise, and even after being punched in the face, he kept smiling throughout the match.
“I got a stick in my jaw!” Harper exclaimed gleefully as he slid toward the bench, sticking his tongue out to check for blood.
Harper and other players said hockey simply feels good. It gave them a way and a reason to prevent the natural effects of aging.
And you can actually create some velocity by skating.
“Even if you try to escape, you won’t get anywhere,” Maslow said.
But the players were also hinting at something less concrete, a swirl of self-esteem and ritualism and sensory memory that keeps them back on the ice each week.
“It’s a part of who I am and that feeling is really strong,” Meredith said of playing hockey. “Maybe that’s why I’m clinging on because the smell of hockey, which can only be experienced at an indoor ice rink, reminds me of going to the rink.”
So did Schultz. He had breakfast and lunch at the rink he built and opened in 1969. He spent most of his days polishing to the drawing board, so he saw Tuesday night games as something of a spiritual treat.
“He used to say, ‘That’s the only thing that gives me joy,'” said his widow Gene Schultz.
He played until his death in 2000 at the age of 77. He said many players want to play like him.
But when injuries and physical impermanence hang in the air during the tournament, the older players soften it with black humor.
Bob Carolan, 82, a retired pulmonologist in Eugene, Oregon, recalled reviving a heart attack player on the ice about 15 years ago.
Carolan, who met the same man at a tournament ten years later, said, “It’s the best play I’ve ever done with Snoopy.” “He had an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, but he was still playing.”
After an early morning game, the Fading Stars climbed off the ice and shed their gear. A case of Coors Light came out. 7:40 a.m. A visitor notices the beer company’s logo on the team’s sweater and asks if it’s a sponsor.
“The only sponsor we’re looking for is Viagra,” said Murray Platt, 68, of Denver.
Dave McKay, 72, of Denver, also caught a cold. He scored four goals in the team’s opening game, but sprained his ankle in the second game and arrived in walking boots for the third game.
The foot had troubled him before–he held up a picture of twelve screws, an iron bar, and a plank in it–and his wife had already gently questioned his priorities. But slowing down wasn’t on his mind.
“I’m sure this will improve my quality of life,” McKay said, leaning on crutches, “even if I had to limp a little bit.”