Sure, age is just a number.
For Jerry Romeo, it’s the wrong number.
The founder of the Old Timers Hockey program at the Schenectady County Recreational Facility wore his All-Star jersey from last season to the rink Wednesday morning, with “SNIPER” sitting atop a big 76.
Now he’s 77, and the nickname is one of the ironic kind, like calling actor and former WWF wrestler Tommy Lister “Tiny.”
Romeo considers himself the worst player in the 55-and-older hockey program, so “Sniper” is a bit misleading, but so is the skill level of the group, which plays Wednesday and Friday mornings from 9-10:30. In each session, they go about proving age is no way to measure a man’s competitive level.
“Some days, you come in here and you take off your jersey and your T-shirt is soaked, your head’s hanging down. This is what has surprised some of the guys who have come in,” Romeo said. “They know I started it, and they know how I play, and they think it was all really novice players. But some of these guys played Division I and II, so there’s no lack of skill. We try to balance the talent each day so we can have a good game.”
Romeo started the group because other leagues he had checked out were not interested in allowing novice or unskilled players to join. There were plenty of such leagues for kids, but not for adults.
“All we require of novice players is that they can skate well enough to not be a danger to themselves or anyone else,” he said. “We now have at least five players who started as novices and have become very capable players.”
Romeo said there are about 65 people who participate in the program. They’re not all there at the same time or on the same days, but much of the time, they have enough for a decent game.
A group of 24 showed up for Wednesday’s skate, two of them goalies. As usual, the teams were decided by dividing up the talent as evenly as possible. Both teams had six reserves, and shift length was generally dictated by each player’s stamina.
For a 55-and-older game, there was quite a bit of transition. When an offense did set up in the zone, there was no positional confusion. Novices or not, these guys knew what to do, some of them even trying to establish a presence in front of the net.
Those guys were then moved out by defensemen, but gently.
Or at least, not roughly.
“Everybody has fun, and there’s no roughhousing, no contact, no slapshots,” Romeo said. “We have two goalies pretty consistently. So we’re pretty happy with it.”
Sometimes, they even have to ask guys to bring it down a notch.
“If someone gets a little overzealous, we just pull them aside or send them an email to tell them, ‘Look, we’re just here for fun. We’re not here to hurt anybody,’ ” said Keith Swan, who has been playing with the group since its inception. “That works out pretty well.”
After all, it’s Old Timers Hockey, not old-time hockey.
That request for controlled play doesn’t stifle the excitement too much, though. There are players here who still have good feet, still have good hands. When they look down to find the puck on their stick, then look up to find open ice, that old fire burns a little hotter for a few moments as they bust it through the neutral zone.
The goalies can still get down and up when called upon, and even with slapshots outlawed, some of the wristers unleashed help to identify the former college or junior hockey players.
Skill aside, it’s good exercise, and that, combined with a love of the game, keep Old Timers Hockey going strong.
“Going to the gym, to me, that’s like a sharp stick in the eye compared to this,” Romeo said. “You come here, you’re having fun. Other than skiing, I don’t think there’s a better workout than hockey. You’re using your arms, your shoulders, your legs, you’re bending and twisting. It’s just a great workout.”
The guys will get a chance to feel like an Olympian for a day in June when they head to Lake Placid for a session, and they will have an All-Star game at the Schenectady County Recreational Facility in April.
At the last All-Star game, the wives of the players came equiped with pom-poms and loud cheering voices to provide a special atmosphere, and there was food and drink waiting for the players when they came off the ice.
Those perks don’t hurt, but it’s clear what keeps these players coming back. It’s the game, and it’s the teammates, even though those change each session.
“It’s a blast, and it’s a great group of guys,” Swan said. “I do it mainly for the exercise and the camaraderie. You can tell we’re an older group. The banter in the locker room used to be about women, and all that kind of stuff. Now it’s about prostates and bypasses and knee replacements.”