The Game of our Lives
by Tom Gullen, Superintendent of Facilities
Winnetka Ice Arena, a facility of the Winnetka Park District
Our story begins a few years back with my old boy’s hockey group. We realize that many of us had hit the half-century mark in life and that many others will soon be there. We make it our goal to go play in the U.S.A. Hockey over 50 National Championships held every April in Tampa.
Our talk was just that until this past December when Mike Straub, our elder statesman and Zen master, calls to get the Old Tyme Hockey Club together. I say sure, knowing full well my role will be like the 12th man on the Chicago Bulls who barely takes off his warm up suit. A few months pass until we hear again from Mike; the tournament is in six weeks. You mean we were supposed to prepare? Ooops!
I have six weeks to get ready to keep up with Chip Kenyon. I better drop ten pounds; I settle for five. I spin, I do yoga, I go to a massage therapist who grinds her elbow into my hips until I want to cry. I play hockey four times a week. It doesn’t help. I guess at the age of 53 this is as good as it will get.
Our squad is set with a cast of local Winnetka guys and three boys from Boston. Then we lose a defenseman to an “upper body injury” and another to a “lower body injury”. We’re down to 11 guys!
Now if you think this is some AARP Tournament, it is anything but. We play in the top tier of the tournament with seven other teams featuring a wide array of former NHL players, minor pro players, and about 90% who played collegiately.
Game 1 vs. Heartland, the Minnesota team that features four NHLers and a bunch of former Minnesota Gophers. They pass the puck like the Russian Olympic Team and we chase the puck like a mite team on way to a 6-2 loss. Game 2 was against a team from Ellenton Florida; basically Canadians and Boston guys who hate winter. We win 6-3 setting up a must win game against the St. Nick’s Hockey Club from New York City; the oldest amateur hockey club in the United States filled with Ivy league investment banker types. Some of you may have heard of the Hobey Baker Award; the college hockey equivalent of The Heisman; well Hobey was a St. Nick’s player. We were told they lacked the gentlemanly spirit and it was accurate. We pull out a 3-2 win and it was fun to see the sulking New Yorkers leave the ice. This set up a semi-final game against the North Carolina Eagles. The Eagles featured a bunch of guys that played pro hockey in Carolina and were the size of an R.V. The Carolina squad breaks open a tight game late and we are eliminated from the tournament.
Yet that is not what I took from this event. There were over 30 teams in this over 50 tournament and another 10 in the over 60 bracket; teams. Some 600 players from throughout the country gathering to play a few games.
I am guessing that most every player in this event never imagined they’d still be playing this kid’s game well into their 50’s. What inspired them to keep going? What drives them to get up at 6:00am on Sundays or run out of the house at 10:00pm to drive to a rink to play? Some 30 years after their last game that really mattered this group still played with the passion and intensity of a High School team.
The reality is that this game is part of all of us. I look around the locker room, look out onto the ice and realize that what we are as people is defined by the game we play. I look at my friends in the world of paddle tennis and at times I think they are crazy but they also share that passion to play that sport just as we do with hockey. They too compete at a high level late in life. No, we don’t play hockey for a living….but our foundation, our friends, our lives, were all greatly influenced by the game. At some point over the weekend someone said, “what would our lives had been like had we not played hockey?” Truth is most of us could not imagine that.
My guess is that every person that played in this tournament still loves the game as he did when he was 12. There was someone, or something, that fostered this passion that has never left any of us. We know that after every game our body will ache from head to toe and our legs don’t work like they used to and there’s some type of disconnect between what the mind says to do and the body actually chooses to perform. I witnessed that first hand late in the 2nd period of our semifinal game when the puck ends up on my stick directly in from of the Carolina goalie; “shoot it high now” just as I have told thousands of players in my coaching career. The puck dribbles along the ice for a easy save. I shake my head.
So we skate one more time this week and the smelly gear gets put away for another year. Yes…. there will be another year.