Hockey is a game that reaches inside you and grips your soul. We play, we coach, we watch, and we cheer because we LOVE the game. Hockey rinks, whether filled to the rafters with screaming fans or hosting beer-leaguers playing to empty bleachers, are communities unto themselves.
The game connects us through triumph and defeat, forging friendship and fandom, from dingy locker rooms to packed professional arenas. For a group of friends, former teammates, and loyal Capitals fans on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, this has always held true. We celebrated like crazy when the Caps lifted the Stanley Cup in June. Now we have returned to our roots.
In the early 1990s, my friends and I began playing roller hockey, spending countless hours knocking a little orange ball around any smooth outdoor surface we could find. Eventually, we took our venture to the ice, driving an hour to the nearest rink so we could skate in a recreation league, playing the game of our hockey heroes like Dale Hunter and Rod Langway. It’s now been over a decade since most of us have happily hopped over the boards in a game. A few guys still play, but most of us are long retired. Content to root for the Caps from our safe perch as armchair coach.
Then, this past fall, an innocuous Facebook comment about playing some street hockey got us thinking. After a few subsequent conversations, the Old Guy Hockey League was born. Thus far the “league” has mostly consisted of a handful of us passing the ball around the old basketball court on which we skated 25 years ago. We’ve fired on empty nets and played some low-speed 4-on-4. Most of us are reluctant to strap on the roller blades just yet. In our Forties, not our Twenties, we figured tennis shoes were a safer bet until we tested our creaky joints and less than supple ligaments. Obviously, some things are different from our playing heyday (such as it was). The distinct, melodic sound of skates carving ice is replaced with sneakers pounding the pavement. Many of us are heavier and slower. We are now a decade older than the pros we cheer for. Our soundtrack would be “Glory Days” played on a loop instead of Metallica and Van Halen. Yet, proving the grandness and timelessness of the game, some things are unchanged. That unique stink of well-worn gloves stuffed too long in a zippered equipment bag. The crack of a slapshot caught just right. The beauty of a sweet pass that somehow finds its intended target through a maze of sticks and legs. And, of course, the laughter and camaraderie.
The OGHL is actually a bit of a misnomer. Yes, most of us are, or at least feel, old, but we have also brought our sons and daughters out too. In an effort to share our love of the game and nurture the next generation of players and fans, we have invited the kids to join. They keep us honest and on task. One youngster, eager to play a real game, hilariously asked, “Just how long does it take you old guys to get warmed up?” Yeah, the game is in good hands.
Perhaps in the future, when our lower backs are more limber and our skating legs stronger, the old guys will start playing on in-line skates again. Even so, each weekend when we pull the goals down, the evidence – the scuff marks on the court, the decades-old inside jokes, the sore muscles and smiles we carry home – is clear. There is no doubt we made the right decision by playing again. Playing a kid’s game and still living our NHL daydreams. Reminding ourselves there are few better ways to while away an afternoon than with a hockey stick in our hands.
By Bryan Hailey