Hockey Central
Other Facets of Hockey
The Odd and the Unusual
Home Ice Advantage
Early Artificial Ice
Old Timers' Hockey
The Old Bootheel
Youth Hockey Around the World
Life in the Dressing Room
Black Hockey History
Sermon from the Rock
The Other Guy's Barn
Hockey Trading Cards
Hollywood Hockey
Table Hockey
Computer and Video Games
Oldtimers' Hockey
Hockey for the Fun of It
In the winter of 1964, a group of doctors, lawyers and civil servants interested in playing pick-up hockey began renting the arena at St. Mary's University in Halifax regularly on Saturday afternoons. In 1966, a bunch of University of British Columbia business graduates started playing shinny on Wednesday nights in Vancouver. About the same time, a corps of inveterate hockey enthusiasts began gathering at the arena in Pointe-Claire, Quebec on Sunday nights. Nobody seemed interested in renting the ice after seven o'clock in the evening, so this ad hoc group of over-35-year-olds, calling themselves the Pointe-Claire Oldtimer's Hockey Club, started a six-team league of friendly competition.
In fact, it was Pointe-Claire defenseman and club organizer Bill Wilkinson who decided not to call it "hockey for seniors" and who coined the phrase "oldtimers' hockey". In addition to Sunday night hockey, in 1970 Wilkinson and the Pointe-Claire club inaugurated their own International Oldtimers' Invitational Tournament. Each year teams from Quebec, Ontario and the northern United States traveled to the Pointe-Claire area (near Montreal) to compete in a weekend tournament and to use up much of the ice time that nobody else wanted.
What these men's groups, and hundreds more like them, discovered almost simultaneously in Canada was that men born during or just after World War II were now approaching middle age. As kids, they had played hockey in the street, in driveways, on frozen ponds and creeks, and some organized house league and rep hockey. Some had even gone as far as semi-pro. But by about age of 20 they had quit or been forced to quit because, unless they were destined for the NHL or amateur coaching, the game had no place for them. Marriage, jobs and families became the priorities in their lives, while sticks, skates and again hockey equipment were discarded and forgotten.
But the coming of oldtimers' hockey "opened up a brand new world for these guys," says Gerry "Tubby" Aherne, one time backup goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs. "Suddenly, their boyhood game, the game they'd grown up with, was theirs to play again. And it didn't matter how good or bad you were, whether you played all the time as a kid or for the first time as a 35-year-old, there was a competitive division in oldtimers for you.
What is "oldtimers' hockey?" It's the recreational side of the game that has evolved from street and pond hockey. It's adults picking up the hockey traditions and styles they enjoyed – or wish they had enjoyed – as youths. It's shinny, a little slower. It's house league play for the adult camaraderie. It's tournament competition, without the do-or-die pressure of the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. It's the most common form of hockey being played – in neighborhood arenas, on the frozen canal, at outdoor rinks, or even sometimes on the manicured ice surfaces of a Gardens, Forum, Stadium, Arena or Coliseum.
One of the alumni from those early tourneys in Pointe-Claire was a schoolteacher from Ennismore, just north of Peterborough, Ontario. In March of 1974, John Gouett teamed up with Gerry Aherne and organized a St. Michael's College oldtimers' hockey team to stage a barnstorming tour of Canada's western provinces. "During the spring break we played eight games in 10 days," Gouett recalled, "And while we were out there we asked everybody what they thought of oldtimer hockey and if they would come to a national tournament if we organized one."
The whirlwind western trip attracted numerous teams, plenty of small-town crowds and press, but most of all a positive response to their blue-sky idea of a national oldtimers' hockey association and tournament. That summer, Gouett quit teaching, assigned the family house and personal assets to guarantee a $15,000 line of credit and formed the Canadian Oldtimers' Hockey Association. He and Aherne got a $4,500 grant from Recreation Canada. They booked hotels and ice time, landed a few sponsors and arm-twisted enough players to make this national dream come true.
The result? At eight o'clock in the morning, on Friday, February 21, 1975, five referees dropped pucks at center ice in five different arenas in the Peterborough area, inaugurating the first national oldtimers' hockey tournament staged in Canada. Fifty-six teams (over 1,200 players) had arrived to play in four divisions based on age and players' hockey backgrounds. And while referee-in-chief Jim Orr managed to keep the games relatively safe, friendly and running on time (based essentially on a no- body-contact rule) Aherne and Gouett had enough trophies, team photo sessions and postgame coolers of beer on hand to keep everybody happy.
Spectators flocked to the five arenas. Along with several hometown heroes to cheer for, such as 1950s Peterborough Petes Stalwarts George Montague and Larry Babcock, there were plenty of bona fide former hockey stars to see again. The Grande Prairie Oldtimers, with an average age of 45, featured Garry "Duke" Edmundson, who had played for the 1951 Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. A Stanley Cup alumnus with the Detroit Red Wings, Marcel Pronovost arrived with the Toronto St. Michael's Oldtimers, while long-time Chicago Black Hawks right winger Chico Maki (then 35) appeared with the Simcoe Oldtimers. And the Yorkton Oldtime Terriers (from Saskatchewan) had no less than six former pros, including 1940s veteran Metro Prystai, who had played on a line with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.
That First Annual National Oldtimers' Hockey Tournament did more than fill a few arenas with fans, bellies with beer, and hearts with nostalgia. It launched the fledgling COHA, which soon moved its office to Ottawa to officially become part of Fitness Canada; by 1980 it had 300 registered teams and by 1990 it had 3,000. It attracted sponsorship for the staging of annual tournaments in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. It gave writer/publisher Dave Tatham the grist for a monthly publication – Canadian Oldtimers' Hockey News. But most important of all it demonstrated to adult men and women the universal appeal of returning to the game of their youth – playing hockey just for the fun of it.
Like the youthful rites of passage into the game – frozen toes, the Saturday morning practice and your goal written up in the weekly newspaper — oldtimers' hockey is attracting more adults than ever before. Adult recreational hockey (there are now more than 80,000 players registered in Canada) has become so widespread in North America that it's fair to say at any time of day or night somewhere in Canada or the U.S. a puck is sliding across the ice in an oldtimers' hockey game.
Wherever the game was reintroduced to adults it found a natural home. One of those locations was a rink in Saskatoon's north end. IN the fall of 1977 a Saturday afternoon meeting was called at the change shack adjacent to River Heights Elementary School. About 40 men ranging in age from their late-20s to their mid-40s gathered to talk about starting up an oldtimers' hockey team. A ready-mix concrete company sponsored the team with a set of sweaters and the River Heights Mixers oldtimers' hockey club was born.
Every Monday morning, at about the time the inhabitants of most London, Ontario offices are brewing their first cup of liquid inspiration, two of the six-teams known as the Huff n' Puffs are taking to the ice at the Earl Nichols Arena on the south side of the city. The idea of an adult hockey scrimmage for retirees came from Al Finch and Ted Troads, who had a number of ex-air force buddies in southwestern Ontario. At first they rented the ice for an hour. As their numbers swelled, they paid for time at another arena. Today, Huff n' Puffs hockey has attracted about 100 skaters and a handful of goalies who show up three times a week year round. None of the players is younger than 55 and most are in their 60s and 70s.
In the mid-1960s when the B.C. lower mainland had only three indoor hockey arenas to speak of and two hometown heroes to look up to (legendary Fred "Cyclone" Taylor and Montreal Canadiens tough guy John Ferguson), organized adult hockey was nearly non-existent. About 1966, a handful of hockey-hungry grad students at UBC approached the management at the newly built Thunderbird Winter Sports Complex for some ice time. They got Wednesday nights at eight o'clock.
"It was pure shinny," remembers Keith Morrison. "Guys went out there, split into two more-or-less-even teams, went at it for an hour and a half, no referees, no whistles, just non-stop hockey." A decade later, with the phrase "oldtimers' hockey" steadily creeping into the hockey lexicon, Morrison and company were ready to establish a formal association. The ex-shinny players responded to a newspaper ad promoting the first Oldtimer Invitational tournament in nearby Port Coquitlam. They fit almost all the criteria. They were all over 35. They had adapted to no-slapshot, non-contact hockey. They trouble was, they had no name and no uniforms. Morrison's first Hockey Newsletter documents the solution:
"After 11 years of deliberation and procrastination, a Uniform Committee was struck. As usual [we] knew someone who could "get us a deal", which turned out to be the Atlanta Flames road uniform. Turning the Atlanta flaming "A" upside down gave is the flaming "V" crest. And a new name – the Vancouver Flames. Cost $20."
On summer evenings in July and August, die-hard hockey players, some clad in shorts and T-shirts, others in business clothes, leave the warm evening air for the chill of an arena in Brossard, Quebec across the Champlain Bridge from Montreal on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. These 20-odd players chase pucks at Les 4 Glaces as members of various oldtimers' teams – the Rusty Blades, SWAT (Senior Westmount All-Star Team), the Montreal Old Puckers and even some from one of the original oldtimers' organizations in Montreal, the Fakawie Hockey League – all summer long.
"People think we're crazy to play hockey in the summer time," says Brook Ellis, who's been playing hockey since the days he was a high school student in the Toronto area in the 1950s. "I tell them summer hockey is a wonderful thing. When it's hot outside, it's great to walk into a nice cool rink, work up a sweat, then afterwards, when you're good and thirsty, have a cool drink. There isn't a game like it in the world. I feel sorry for the Americans who've only played baseball. They grow old and can't do it anymore. Canadian kids grow into old men like us and can continue to play our game."
In the final days of the 1970 minor hockey season in east end Toronto, the tension of the bantam hockey playoffs got to the coaches of the two finalists. Dave Bayford and Bill Loreti were actually close friends, but in the excitement and pressure of the game the two coaches actually got into a fight in the penalty box. Following that game, they quit minor hockey forever, deciding instead to teach visually impaired or blind youngsters how to play hockey. The result was a team of young men " called the Ice Owls " 80 percent of whose members are legally blind. Since 1972, the group has played regular games on Sunday mornings, competing in blind-players' tournaments across Canada and even in exhibition matches against NHL oldtimers and against sighted players in Helsinki, Leningrad and Kiev.
The evolution of the Ice Owls' hockey puck is a study in ingenuity. First they tried a tin can, then a tin can with marbles or ball bearings inside, a wooden puck and one with a chain attached to it. Another prototype used an empty plastic computer tape case rigged with a buzzer inside. It worked until snow and ice gummed up the buzzer or until the wear and tear shattered the plastic case. Ultimately, the blind oldtimers' team came up with a plastic wheel from a push-toy. They drilled a hole through to the hollow center of the wheel and inserted several steel piano tuning pegs; the combination of the hard plastic wheel clattering across the ice and the tuning pins rattling inside gave the Ice Owls a relatively lightweight, durable puck they could hear above any arena din.
On several occasions over the years, the Ice Owls oldtimers have played another oldtimers' institution – the Flying Fathers. In the early 1960s, North Bay broadcaster Terry Spearin got talking to local parish priest Brian McKee about the possibility of staging an adult hockey game to raise funds for the Catholic Youth Organization in town. On February 20, 1964 the 5,000-seat North Bay Memorial Gardens was nearly sold out to watch the broadcast team " the Statics – take on a number of ex-seminarians and priests from Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins, including Father Les Costello, who had played on the Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup-winning team in 1948. During the lead up to the game, someone coined the phrase, "the Flying Fathers." It stuck.
As their reputation for playing good oldtimer hockey spread, the priests – playing these fun-matches on their own vacation time – adopted a seemingly never-ending repertoire of hockey shtick to spice up each game. They taunted referees with an assortment of cream pies and buckets of water. They confused their opposition by conducting pseudo-religious ordinations and blessings on the ice. For a time, they dressed up a member of their team in a nun's habit as Sister Mary Shooter and even brought a draft horse named Penance onto the ice in goalie pads to play net. Like the Harlem Glodetrotters on ice, the Flying Fathers oldtimers' team had become one of the most sought-after, fund-raising phenomena in the world.
In their first 30 years of "playing and praying for a better world," the Flying Fathers accumulated many firsts as oldtimers, hockey players and ambassadors for Canada and the priesthood. They played nearly 1,000 games for charity and won nearly all of them. Their record is five game in one day. During one trip across Canada and the U.S., they played 16 games in 15 cities in 20 days, traveling 14,000 miles. The largest crowd they drew was 15,396 at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum. A single game at the Montreal Forum in 1984 raised $50,000 for the Shriners Hospital. During a charity game at Maple Leafs Garden in 1985, nearly 14,000 spectators watched the Flying Fathers play the Maple Leaf alumni. Leaf owner Harold Ballard turned over all gate receipts and proceeds from concessions that day, raising $240,000 for cancer research.
Each year between October and May, in addition to the thousands of oldtimers' house-league games, once-a-week senior recreational games, shinny matches and pick-up sessions across the continent, the calendar is full of weekend tourneys. Some are local. Many are national tournaments, sponsored by the Canadian Adult Recreational Hockey Association (formerly the COHA), including the Hub City in Saskatoon, the McMurty Cup in Toronto, and the Monctonian. For those looking offshore, there are annual tour-and-play packages to Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Europe.
It's generally agreed by most oldtimers' hockey players, however, that the annual Snoopy's Senior World Hockey Tournament, organized by "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, is an oldtimers' hockey mecca. Staged in mid-July in Santa Rosa (north of San Francisco), competition to get into the tourney is tough; of the 300 to 400 teams that apply to play, only 50 to 60 get in. All games take place at Redwood Empire Ice Arena, built in 1969 by Schulz for his figure-skating daughter and hockey-crazed sons.
"We used to sneak onto the St. Paul Academy rink and play under the light of the moon," says cartoonist Schulz about his childhood passion for hockey in Minnesota during the 1930s. "Nobody had pads. We used copies of National Geographic for shin pads."
And when there was nobody else around to play shinny with him, Schulz's mother would agree to play goal while he practiced his shot. In 1974, he launched Snoopy's Senior World Hockey Tournament at his own expense. Neither relentless press deadlines for his Peanuts cartoons nor quadruple heart bypass surgery a few ago has prevented him, now in his 70s, from playing regularly for his Santa Rosa Diamond Icers.
Among the legendary teams to play against Schulz's Diamond Icers, the Mandai Memorials from Japan are a study in oldtimers' hockey dedication. In 1933, while Japanese colonial armies occupied northern China, a 24-year-old Japanese medical student named Toshihiko Shoji was training at the Manchurian Medical College. That autumn, as creeks and ponds froze, Shoji gathered a handful of his colleagues together. He described a winter game he had seen during the 1920s, when an ice hockey team – the Battleford Millers – had visited Japan from western Canada to play exhibition games.
"We heated willow branches and bent them like field hockey sticks," explained Dr. Shoji. "And we used a small tennis ball for a puck. We used the rules explained in a hockey history book by the Spalding company." The Mandai hockey club was born. In 1975, long after those games in Manshuria had faded from memory, Dr. Shoji heard about the oldtimers' concept and formed the Mandai Memorial Ice Hockey Club with Japanese doctors in their 50s and 60s.
Until they got their skating legs back, Dr. Shoji and his teammates chose the opposition carefully. At first, they played inexperienced women's teams. Then in 1978 at the invitation of the Port Coquitlam Ambassadors, they headed to Canada. "Of course," said Shoji, "we lost." But then in 1981, the Memorials came to the Snoopy Tournament in the 60-plus division. "I think we have won only two of three games ever in this tournament," the doctor admitted, "but coming to Santa Rosa each year is a kind of medicine for each of us ... motivation to keep in good health, to practice and think young."