Fifty-and-older hockey bunch shows passion for game


The skater races to the near goal and gets ready to take his shot when a collision with a defenseman sends him crashing to the ice on his shoulder.

Nothing strange about that. That's hockey.

Here's what's strange: After he falls, the other players, on both teams, halt as if by unspoken consensus until the fallen player slowly raises himself to his feet and skates back to the bench for a breather.

Consider it the sole concession -- the sole visible concession, anyway -- to the annoying reality of passing time.

The hockey players -- who, by the way, immediately return to their full-out, competitive, aggressive style of play -- are mostly 50 and older. Three mornings a week, they assemble at the SoBe Ice Arena at the Fiesta Rancho, 2400 N. Rancho Drive in North Las Vegas, to play a game most of them have played since childhood in a way that kids don't even play it anymore.

They play only for fun. They pick up sides for the game only when they get there and only by chance. Nobody keeps stats, at least officially.

And, as the man-down timeout shows, their games are both tough and gentlemanly, a sort of weird but intriguing metaphorical mix of Gordie Howe and Emily Post.

The pickup hockey games begin at 11 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and Rob Pallin, the arena's manager, estimates that "probably 95 percent of the guys are the same guys every week.

"There's a great camaraderie between the guys," Pallin adds, but it's also "very competitive out there. These guys skate hard."

The pickup games began about six years ago when Paul Baker and a few other guys attending a 50-and-older public skating session asked if they could, maybe, set up a goal at one end of the rink to, Baker says, "just shoot the puck around."

Pallin thought it was a pretty good idea for the arena, which has an extensive slate of offerings that includes daily public all-ages and 50-and-older skates, figure skating classes and a blizzard of hockey leagues.

It wasn't long before the older guys' informal shootarounds turned into regularly scheduled pickup games for men ages 50 and older. Baker, 67, says the group now has a mailing list of about 50 enthusiasts and that a typical game sees 30 to 40 guys stopping by to play.

Players bring to each game $9 and their own gear, which should include one light and one dark jersey. In the locker room, players pick beads to determine which team they'll play on that day, and then head onto the ice for the face-off.

From there, it's all about playing hard and having fun with a few friends.

"We have some really good players and we have some weak players," Baker says. "We've got some guys who are 60 or 70 years old playing.

"At one time, we had about eight guys who had heart bypass surgery, and the doctors said, 'I don't know what you're doing, but keep doing it.'

"It's as competitive as you can get for our age group. My idea is, I wanted as close to a game as you can get without keeping records of who's winning and who's losing. Our goal is playing."

Like any group of athletes, the guys have assembled a collection of mutual nicknames, in-jokes and good-natured putdowns. Take Baker who, in discussing the diverse nature of the league's regulars, notes that "we've got one guy who has one leg. One-Legged Billy, we call him."

Of course they do, and Bill Zabelny is totally cool with it. In fact, Zabelny seems more comfortable with leg-related humor than with a passing teammate telling a visitor how inspiring Zabelny is.

Zabelny, who has been playing in the league since 2005, is an independent meeting planner who schedules his work days around the thrice-weekly games.

He lost his lower right leg in a car accident when he was 12, but has been playing hockey since he was 5 -- he made Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" feature as a high school senior -- and from 2002 to 2006 played on the U.S. national amputee ice hockey team.

"Essentially, I get the underage pass because it's technically over-50 and I'm 40," Zabelny says. Does being a decade younger than the league's youngest members give him an advantage on the ice?

"Well, you know, some of them would say yes," Zabelny says, smiling. "I think this" -- he gestures toward his prosthesis -- "puts it on an even playing field."

Zabelny likes playing in the 50-and-older pickup games "to keep in shape. And, the leagues sometimes can be a little too serious.

"I like to know I can go have fun in the morning. I like to say we play the gentleman's game, which is no checking and no overaggressive style of play."

Like those unofficial man-down timeouts? "Exactly," Zabelny says. "We look out for each other.

"We have some guys in their 70s, and if they go down I feel like I've got to check on them. If my leg comes off or becomes misaligned (it's), 'Wait, Billy's got to put his leg back on.' We want to have fun, and we tell jokes and make fun of each other."

Native Southern Nevadan Gordon Ray began playing ice hockey at a rink at Commercial Center when he was 12. Now, playing is a means of both stress relief and exercise.

"Some guys go to the gym or whatever," says Ray, now 59. "We're here three times a week, with pretty much the same guys. You come out here and sweat and have fun and have a good time."

A few other rules help to keep the games on the correct side of the blue line that separates fun-but-competitive from stressful-and-cutthroat.

There are no slap shots, Baker says, and "after every five goals, whatever team wins five goals, you switch the goalies to stay competitive.

"To me, I want every game to be 4-4 because, I don't care who you are, when the game's 4-4, guys play harder and tougher and their skill level comes out."

It all seems to work. "When weaker players score a goal, you'd think it was the finals of the Stanley Cup," Baker says.

Pallin notes, too, that the games are as much about getting together with a bunch of friends as they are playing hockey.

"There are days when I have to cancel this, and the most phone calls I get is from these guys," Pallin says. "So, take this away from them and you're taking away part of their day."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

 

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