The GeriHatricks: Very Young at Hockey Heart

 When it comes to recreational hockey, boys will be boys — even if they’re 72 years old. That’s the theme enveloping the GeriHatricks’ Annual Senior Hockey Tournament, contested each March at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Md.
This past weekend marked the 5th anniversary of the invitational tourney “for senior hockey players more than 50 years young.” Five years ago, a half dozen teams of AARPers made up the first gathering: four teams of 60-and-over rosters and two in the 70-and-over set. This past weekend, 19 teams, comprised in three age brackets — 50s, 60s recreational and 60s competitive, and 70s — delivered a truly national flavor to an event rapidly gaining in popularity and significance. Among the entries: the New York Golden Apples; the Central Massachusetts Rusty Blades; the Minnesota Old Timers; the Lancaster (Pa.) Regency O’Timers.
Saturday morning I arrived at the Ice House early enough to see the Skipjacks’ 50-something entry, featuring ex-Caps Yvon Labre, Blair Stewart, Gary Rissling, Nelson Burton, and Alan Hangsleben. They put a cane-whacking on Lancaster, 9-1. No wonder — talk about a ringer lineup! And Rod Langway was rostered with the Skipjacks, but some late-arriving conflicts for the weekend prevented him from participating.
The tournament is a particular recreational hockey highlight for me, as I’ve a 65-year-old father who competed in it in its first year and was returning to action this year after a two-year stint on IR with a bum knee. When I learned of the participation by all those ex-Caps this year, I asked Dad if he was nervous.
“I won’t see them,” he replied, “They’re in the kiddie division.”
The GeriHatricks started as an effort to create a seniors hockey team to compete in the National Senior Games Association Winter Olympics held in Lake Placid nearly 10 years ago. They formed and sent a team to the Games in 1999, and won a gold medal the following year. There no longer are Senior Olympics for hockey, but the idea of “seasoned skating” has taken off in greater D.C.
Today, the GeriHatricks are comprised of three separate seniors’ teams (all entered in this March tournament), two 60-something squads divided into the “recreational” and the “Gold” (more competitive) outfits, and a 70-something unit. They skate recreationally for 90 minutes every Wednesday morning at the Laurel rink, and recent growth in interest among the grey-set in skates is leading the organization to acquire additional ice time on Mondays. In the summer, they’ll skate early on Saturday nights. There’ll be a full-fledged, four-team league housed out of Laurel this autumn. The Golden Guys.
The leadership behind the GeriHatricks is a 72-year-old named John Buchleitner — known as “Lightning” among his teammates. His rookie year in hockey arrived a bit later than most in this tournament: age 65.
“I used to run [for fitness], then I couldn’t run anymore,” he told me. “My two boys played hockey, and one was over here [at Laurel], and he said to me, ‘Dad, there’s a bunch of old geezers here playing hockey, maybe you should do something with them.’
“I’d watched thousands of games because of my boys playing, and I read some books,” he added. Is it fair to say he became hooked on hockey while silver-haired?
“Oh my goodness yes!” he beamed. “The best part of it is being in the room with the guys. You see guys from all walks of life — doctors and lawyers and guys that work in marinas, it’s such a funny group of people. They all have one common interest, and no one cares where you’re from or what you do.”
This was Labre’s first GeriHatricks tournament. The 58-year-old former Caps’ great was being recruited hard all weekend by the competitive 60-something entries, but he’ll have to wait for the 2010 tourney to “graduate.” His more immediate concern, however, was readying himself for a second game late Saturday afternoon, as the 2-0 Skipjacks entered elimination play, and his NHL-battered knee was already acting up on him.
“I gotta go ice myself down,” he said wearily. “Four games in two days . . . this is more tiring than my old [NHL] days.”
While chatting with Labre Saturday morning, I had a chance to ask him for his impressions of the Bruce Boudreau-led Caps.
“The puck movement is the thing I notice, the big difference in the team,” he told me. “They don’t hang on to the puck like they used to. The quicker you move it the more the other team has to adjust. That’s what I find creates a lot of openings for them.”
Lancaster’s lone goal Saturday morning against the Skipjacks was scored with one second left in the game — with Labre defending.
“You had a nice plus-minus going until that,” I chided.
“Oh the goalie was mad, too,” he replied. “Would have been his first shutout since he started playing in this.”
Speaking of goalies, I wondered about the men who put the pads on between the pipes in a seniors tournament. Earlier this season, I listened in as Olie Kolzig detailed for the media the morning stretching routine he now has to execute to ready himself for games. He’s not a young man anymore, you know. But Kolzig is half the age of some GeriHatricks. Turns out, goalies in this tournament are allowed to be as young as 45, but “most of them are of age,” meaning, contemporaries of their teammates, according to Buckleitner.
It isn’t all about old timers hockey here. It’s also about free beer in between and after games. Bill Oliver of the GeriHatricks’ Gold squad is the owner and proprietor of Oliver Ales and Stouts, which was on tap all tournament long in the Gardens lounge above the playing surfaces. Seniors making the trek across country to Laurel for the weekend know that a few tasty cold ones are ever at their disposal.
The tournament utilizes modified USA Hockey rules. Minor penalties banish offenders to the penalty box for just one-and-a-half minutes — in life’s later skating laps, after all, time’s too precious to be long holed up in a sin bin. Correspondingly, majors (of which there are few) require just four minutes in the box. Imagine if Donald Brashear puts down roots here and joins Labre’s alumni team. There’s no body checking, of course. Delayed offsides are in effect — “once all offending players have cleared the attacking zone, play may continue” — and I asked Dad how long it takes 70-somethings to clear the zone.
“Sometimes minutes,” he replied.
The player conversations one overhears in and near locker rooms at the Ice House are a bit different with this tournament as well:
“I need knee replacement [surgey].”
“I’m slated for a new hip.”
“How are the great grandkids?”
I also learned that requests for player interviews after games require a bit of patience on the part of the reporter. This is partly due to players’ diminished dexterity in getting out of gear. Post-game refreshments, which among the early morning skaters may have included Bloody Marys, also prolong the delays.
A modern advance in hockey comforts is especially helpful in a tournament such as this: equipment bags with wheels.
My father’s team lost its first two games on Friday and entered Saturday morning’s matchup on the brink of winless elimination. They pulled out to a 1-0 lead and clung to it precariously until there were about 4 minutes to go in the game. Then Dad potted an insurance marker during a scrum in the crease. The comeback, at 65, complete.
Seated in the stands among a dozen or so proud sons, relatives, and friends of other players, I made a point of letting them know of the heroics.
“That was my old man,” I yelled with glee.

This entry was posted in Former Coaches & Players, Hockey Heroes. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The GeriHatricks: Very Young at Hockey Heart

  1. Zman says:

    Good for them. I hope I’m still playing hockey when and if I reach 72 years old.

  2. maruk says:

    That remains one of the coolest names ever. I may have to morph it into a band name one of these days.

  3. Agreed on both counts, Maruk. But shouldn’t we offer it to the Rolling Stones first?

  4. Garrett says:

    Great Post, I have actually have had the honor to play with these guys during some pick up games at the Gardens Ice House. They were nice enough to let me play with them. I have to say I have never had so much fun with those guys on the bench and out on the ice. They are such great characters and I truly believe hockey is keeping them young.

  5. Jerry Hatrick says:

    Wonderful post. As one of the “Gerihatricks” you may be interested to know that Laurel Gardens Ice House already has an over 60 league! The first season ended a few weeks ago after 20 games. The website can be found at:

  6. Steve Galeski says:

    Back in 2002 John Buckleitner gave me a GeriHatrick’s sweater even though I was 6 years away from being a real GeriHatrick. The sweater had my name on the back but no number. When asked John told me that I had to grow up first and I was playing on their youth farm team. Who says John does not have a sense of humor?

  7. Stu Hyatt says:

    The Burnaby Winter Club (Burnaby, BC) will hold a masters hockey tournament on Sept. 8-10. We are taking reservations for 75 plus teams and individual entries for our 80 plus division. We expect six 75 teams and three 80 plus teams.
    Hockey Stu

  8. Great post. Here in Parksville, BC (Vancouver Island) we have about 150 guys over 55 playing tournaments and recreational hockey. Sept. 2010 we will host 32 teams in 55, 60, 65, and 70 categories, for our annual World Classic Hockey Tournament.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s