It’s not as if we haven’t been getting enough heart-stopping hockey lately from the Canucks (aka the Cardiac Kids).
But nothing quite says "Where's the defibrillator?" like geezers on ice. So when one of the brothers was in town for an old-timers hockey tournament this week, we went out to catch a game at 8 Rinks in Burnaby.
Disclaimer: I never played hockey and can’t skate worth beans. Growing up on the West Coast, there were no frozen ponds, no rivers to skate away on. But I fell in love with the game during more than a decade as a hockey dad, most of them as the team manager. Along with tying skates, wrangling parents and lining up games, I got to help out on the bench. And from that priveleged perspective, I finally began to understand and appreciate the game.
Back when our son was playing, the Canucks did strength and conditioning sessions with Peter Twist at 8 Rinks. So it wasn’t uncommon to see Cliff Ronning or Trevor Linden on the ice there. Our son’s favourite spot was a single bench right in front of the glass behind the goalie, where he could watch Kirk McLean as if he was getting a private lesson.
It was from that same vantage point last Saturday morning that we watched the consolation round in the old-timers tournament. A grizzled old fella nursing a large take-out coffee joined us, and after a few comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the netminder on the ice, he started telling us about his own goaltending career.
Bob said he’d played hockey for 40 years, including stints in the Montreal farm system when he was young and promising. As happens with a lot of goalies, though, his knees started to go. He eventually had a few operations and decided part of his rehab was to go back to goaltending in an old-timers league.
His team had just finished a game at 8 Rinks last year and most of them had hit the showers. Bob told us he stayed on the ice to work on some moves. Half a dozen players from the Slovak Olympic hockey team skated out before the Zamboni came out to clean the ice. The Slovaks started passing a few pucks around, then asked Bob if he wanted to take some shots.
Bob said he settled into the crease and the Olympians started firing frozen rubber at him at 100 miles an hour. He managed to stop most of the shots, and was just getting into the rhythm when an Slovak official came on the ice and started yelling at his players to get off and wait for the ice to be cleaned. Bob tilted his goalie mask back on his head, revealing a mop of white hair. Nice playing with you, he said, and skated off as the guys stared in amazement at this geezer goalie.
Once he was out of the dressing room, Bob said he watched the Slovak practice, with a particular interest in their starting goalie, Jaroslav Halak. Coming off the ice after the practice, Halak thrust his blocker and trapper at Bob as he headed to the dressing room. Take these, he said. I can’t do anything with them.
Bob said he uses Halak’s blocker and trapper several times a week playing in the Over-70 league. His wife bought him a new set of goalie pads. He said he also wears padding under his padded pants and probably doesn’t see shots anything like those the Slovaks took on him.
About then, the brother came off the ice beaming after an 8-3 win, and while he was in the dressing room, we left Bob and waited outside, where some of the players were smoking. No wonder politicians are promising to put defibrillators in every Canadian hockey rink.
Standing there in the weak spring sun, we wondered where some of our son’s teammates were now. Were they still playing, even though they hadn’t made it to the NHL or even the Dub? Maybe coaching kids somewhere? Or had they hung up the skates to raise families and nurture careers?
Maybe that’s why old-timer hockey is more popular every year, as players rediscover their love of the game after their families have grown. It's nothing spectacular, and it looks pretty slow compared to the NHL. But every now and then, there's a great save or a tic-tac-toe goal. The rinks are still cold. They still sound and smell like they did when everyone was younger. And the coffee is just as old and just as bad.
Plus you get to have conversations with guys like Bob, who you probably won’t find at places like Rogers Arena.