Special to the Village News
When I turned 60, I wanted to challenge myself with something new: Should I take saxophone lessons or go back to playing my favorite sport growing up, ice hockey? I chose the safer option and took saxophone lessons for four years. When I retired a couple of years ago, I wanted another challenge to mark the occasion. This time, ice hockey won over, even though I hadn't played in nearly 25 years.
With a little bit of research, I discovered there are many options in the San Diego area for ice hockey players of a certain age, 50+ and even 60+. I opted for the latter. After re-buying all new protective equipment, I was back in action at Carlsbad Icetown with a 60+ pick-up game.
Pick-up games are informal games with no referees. I was surprised at the high level of competition, and it took me months to feel comfortable on the ice. But what really shocked me was that many of the players had knee replacements, hip replacements or stents, and some were cancer survivors. Senior hockey is a non-checking sport, but it still has some danger involved due to the high speed of the action and, of course, the puck whizzing through the air.
One of my fellow hockey players in Carlsbad, Richard Lohnes, is 88 years young, has a knee replacement and is an inspiration to any hockey player of any age, from Nova Scotia to San Diego, who can still lace up a pair of skates and grab a hockey stick.
It was Lohnes who suggested I might enjoy the premiere ice hockey tournament for seniors in North America, called Snoopy's Senior World Hockey Tournament, held in Santa Rosa every summer since 1975. He gave me encouragement and some tips on how I could get involved.
"I've been to around 25 Snoopys and what keeps me going back is the camaraderie," Lohnes said. "I see guys I've known going back 25, 30 years. People from Nova Scotia, Vancouver, San Diego, all over. And it's amazing what serious health conditions other players have to deal with, that I don't have. I may have a knee replacement, but everything else is great! I feel very lucky."
The Snoopy connection is, of course, that "Peanuts" comic strip creator Charles Schulz started the tournament back in 1975. Schulz was an avid hockey player until the year before he died at the age of 78 in 2000. The tournament is held at the ice rink he built in 1969, the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, close to where he lived in Santa Rosa.
Schulz ate breakfast and lunch there every day. The tournament attracts dozens of teams and hundreds of hockey players between the ages of 40 and 90 from all over the U.S. and Canada. With team names like the California Antiques, the Seattle Seniles, the Colorado Fading Stars and the Sloths, it's clear that even with the seriousness of the game when the whistle blows, there's still a twinkle in the eyes of the players, despite the cataract surgeries.
Tom Logue, who has a State Farm Insurance office in Fallbrook, and plays in our 60+ group in Carlsbad, is a lifelong ice hockey player who views the Snoopy tournament as more than just a sporting event.
"Snoopy isn't a tournament," Logue said. "It's an experience. I remember seeing a player cursing out a referee during a game with language that would make a bar bouncer blush, and then a short time later, seeing the same player walking out of the locker room, with a pink polo shirt, white loafers and snowy white hair neatly parted looking like he was on his way to deliver a sermon in church. That's hockey."
The tournament is 10 days in July, with games scheduled continuously from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
For the first time in my life, I played four hockey games in five days, which was an accomplishment in itself. I was thrust onto a team, where I didn't know any of the other players, so there was certainly a learning curve for me.
Hockey is a team sport where passing, strategy and knowing fellow players' strong points give teams an advantage. On my team, the Woodstock Flyers, we were a mix of players from all over. One was from New York City, another from Australia, and the rest were players from Northern California. Some of the guys were from the Santa Rosa area and had played together before. Even though we lost all four of our games, our team had a great attitude on the ice, on the bench and in our get-togethers off the ice.
There were a few players from our Carlsbad pick-up group, called The Relics, who were also at Snoopy. Tom Underwood, 70, a San Diego real estate broker, has been to many Snoopys.
"I've been there 13 times," Underwood said. "They usually give you a day off between games, so teams have outings to wineries, Russian River canoe trips, tournament banquets and lots of golf."
Underwood has a knee replacement and a shoulder replacement, but he said that won't keep him off the ice.
"When my knee first started to really hurt I saw a guy playing at the tournament who had two knee replacements," he said. "I saw him, and said, 'Hey, if he can do it with two knee replacements, I can do it with one."
As surprised as I was to see the level of competition at my 60+ pick-up games in Carlsbad, seeing the level of play at the Snoopy Tournament was nothing short of mind-blowing. But when you find out that some of the players were division 1 college hockey players, semi-pro and even former NHL players with five Stanley Cups, like 83-year-old Terry Harper, you understand why.
Charles Schulz is known to have said, "Playing hockey is one of the few things that takes my mind completely off everything else in my life."
So despite the titanium hips, implantable defibrillators, stents and artificial knees, hockey players of all ages are a brotherhood, and now a sisterhood, of athletes, who still get on the ice whenever and wherever possible to stay in shape, take one's mind off daily stresses and have some fun.
And perhaps recapture some of the thrills and maybe even the glory years of decades ago. And as a fellow Carlsbad Icetown player, who survived a heart attack, cancer and too many surgeries to count, once said to me, "If I die playing hockey, I die happy."
Steven Schindler's latest novel is "Fallout Shelter."