Hockey games paced for older players, offer camaraderie and good workout

Players who aren't yet ready to hang up the skates find friendly competition in an over-55 hockey le

Jerry Romeo was among the first players to skate with the Rotten Old Bastards when the loosely knit over-40 hockey league was established in 2001.

But as the league grew, it got more competitive, and the skaters got faster. Pretty soon, the 74-year-old retired computer technician from Charlton found himself playing against guys half his age.

“Little by little, it got taken over by younger players,” he said from the bench at the Schenectady County Ice Rink.

And like many others his age, Romeo wasn’t ready to hang up his skates. Rather, he wanted to find a place to play where he didn’t need to worry about the tempo of the games.

“We wanted a place where older players could get out there without getting killed,” he said.

Last March, Romeo and a group of like-minded players approached rink manager Mike McConkey about securing a time for players over 55. McConkey obliged, giving the group a mid-morning slot at the rink on Fridays specifically dedicated to older, less-aggressive players.

For $5 per game, players get an hour and a half on the ice. There are no refs, no scorekeepers and sometimes the goalies consist of foam padding obscuring most of the net.

Players aren’t required to commit to any set number of games and the teams can vary from week to week. Game jerseys are decided by whichever one happens to be in the player’s hockey bag: Either dark or white.

But the games are immensely popular among older, novice players and seniors, who view them as a great opportunity to get an intensive workout. In fact, the Friday sessions drew enough players that Romeo has since added a skate on Wednesday morning.

Romeo now has accrued a list of more than 60 skaters after starting with only a handful. Some of his players drive nearly an hour to make the morning skates, while others shift around their work schedules to play.

Loosely dubbed Old Timers Hockey, the games are at a slower pace and a bit less physical. McConkey ensures that skaters attending the sessions appear to be the proper age and are aware of the good-hearted nature of the games.

“You don’t have to beat everyone to the puck,” he said.

There are some collisions and a few friendly bumps, but no deliberate checks. Aggressive players, Romeo said, are kindly invited to leave.

That doesn’t mean players aren’t serious on the ice. They skate hard, pass the puck quickly and go hard to the net, even if it’s at a pace that’s a little slower than their younger counterparts are accustomed to playing.

Still, the games are an intense cardiovascular workout. Many say the exercise they get on the ice is unlike any other activity in their lives.

“I’m pretty much here for the exercise,” said Ron Lind, 55, of Ballston Lake.

Skaters with Old Timers Hockey range in age from 55 to 76. Their level of experience varies from those who are just learning the sport to players who have skated all their lives.

Leo Shpiz of Loudonville is among the latter category. The 72-year-old Brooklyn native first took to the ice when he was 6 and was once recruited to play for RPI by legendary coach Ned Harkness.

Shpiz gave up playing for a while before picking the sport up again in his early 60s. Now he likes the “extra second” he gets to make a play on the ice with Romeo’s group.

“I wouldn’t play with the 30-year-olds,” he confessed.

Tom Gurka, of Saratoga Springs, was always accustomed to being the oldest guy on the ice. The strain of playing against much quicker opponents had him contemplating his future in the sport before he learned about Old Timers Hockey.

“This kind of revived my life in hockey,” he said.

There is a sense of camaraderie among the skaters, a feeling that they’re all on the same team, even if they’re playing against one another. On the bench, they trade playful barbs, and the humor is decidedly influenced by their age.

“We used to talk about women and beer,” said 56-year-old Keith Swan of Ballston Lake. “Now we talk about cardiologists, enlarged prostates and heart problems.”

Reach Gazette reporter Justin Mason at 395-3113 or [email protected].

Categories: Life and Arts

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