The Old Man and the Rink

Playing hockey when you’re 50 requires its own grace under pressure

He is an old man who plays hockey in an old man’s league called the Capital District Masters, and his team hasn’t won a game in many weeks. He knows his luck must change. So he loads his tattered bag of equipment and his banged-up hockey stick into his 10-year-old station wagon and drives through the dark and the snow to Hudson Valley Community College.

He enters the rink. The stands are filled. Young people cheer their college team. “They once cheered us like this,” he says to his hockey stick. (The old man talks to inanimate objects often these days.) He enters the locker room. There are other old men like him, gray and soft and round-bellied and far removed from their time. The old man, after all, has been playing hockey since Lyndon Johnson was president.

“Is it a bad sign when you’re already winded after just putting on your skates?” someone laughs.

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“Funny how your feet get farther away every year,” another observes.

The old man removes his bifocals and puts on his sports glasses. They are thick and black, and the other old men hoot. “You look like one of the Hanson brothers,” one says.

“Actually, in high school I did look like a Hanson — long, wild hair and all,” the old man says. His hair is neither long nor wild now. “But at least I have hair,” he thinks.

He does not, however, have a protective cup. He tells no one. That would be dangerous, because these old men are still boys at heart.

The old man emerges from the locker room. The arena is now empty and silent. He steps onto the ice and lies down. He must stretch his body’s muscles to make them pliant. He doesn’t remember having to stretch back when Lyndon Johnson was president, or when he looked like a Hanson brother. An errant puck clunks him in the helmet.

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And then the game begins, and a magical transformation occurs. The old man is suddenly strong and swift and sure. On skates, he is somehow freed from gravity’s relentless pull. He skims and skitters across the ice, the sweat flowing, the frigid air filling his lungs, and he remembers why he is here: to be a young lion again, playing with other young lions. The old man feels something like grace.

Until he collides with his own teammate and crashes heavily to the ice, losing the puck to an opponent, who takes it and scores. The old man seeks redemption. Soon, he steals the puck from a foe and shoots and scores. It is good, he thinks. But not good enough. His team loses, again.

It is midnight, which is late for the old man, who normally goes to bed by 9 on a school night. The locker room fills with the sounds of laughter and ripping tape and rending Velcro. Beers are passed around, and aches and pains and indignities are compared. “My knee’s a mess.” “Can someone untie my skates for me?” “Dammit, I forgot a towel again.”

Muscles tighten as the old man drives back home through the dark and the snow. He enters quietly so as not to wake his family and sets his hockey stick against the wall. It immediately crashes to the floor, waking his family. “Sorry,” he whispers.

He crawls into bed, exhausted but content. Happy, in fact. This is the best night of his week, even in defeat. What would the great DiMaggio think about that? He doesn’t care. He tells his pillow an old joke. (He talks to inanimate objects often these days.)

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“Do you know why the great DiMaggio played baseball?”

“Because he couldn’t play hockey.”

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