For senior hockey players, game never gets old

The left winger carried the puck up ice, swerved into the corner of the rink, and just as a defender slid helplessly toward him, slipped a pass in front of the goal.

A teammate, Joe Tarbox, gathered it in, fired a shot past the goaltender and raised his stick in celebration.

It was Monday morning at The Gardens Ice House, the usual friendly ice hockey scrimmage was under way, and the Red team had taken a 1-0 lead over the Gold.

"After this many years, you do have a sense of where your teammate is going to be," says Carl Sherman, the winger who made the pass. "Setting up [a teammate] for a goal never gets old."

Every hockey fan is familiar with the give-and-go play, and this version was worthy of an NHL highlight reel. Few have likely have seen one carried out by players like this.

Sherman, of Galesville, is 75. Tarbox, a Laurel resident who sports a white beard, is 77. Both are mainstays of the Geri-Hatricks, an 12-year-old hockey club for the senior-citizen set that is hosting a national tournament for players 50 and older at the Laurel rink this weekend.

More than 20 teams — from as far away as Minnesota (the Old-Timers), Massachusetts (the Rusty Blades) and Syracuse, N.Y. (the Gray Wolves) — have traveled to the area to vie for trophies in six divisions at the eighth annual Geri-Hatricks Tournament.

In some games at least, the competition will be fiercer than you might expect.

"It's going to be tough stopping those darned guys from Minnesota," says Dick Baker, 69, a Columbia resident and steady defenseman. "They have some former [U.S] Olympians. But we're strong, too. We have a chance to finish first or second."

He might be right. The organization has won its share of medals in dozens of tournaments over the years, and for regulars like Tarbox, Sherman and Baker, weekly pickup games like Monday's keep the playmaking as sharp as it's going to get, considering the ravages of time.

But even Baker admits that has never been the point.

"Winning and losing? These guys are too old to worry about that. We're in it for the fun," he says. "Once you start playing [hockey], you never really want to stop."

Hard-headed

The rink was empty and dimly lit an hour before the scrimmage, the air heavy and cold. And one player was already in uniform.

Mike Davis leaped onto the ice, skated a few practice laps, and started firing pucks against the boards to warm up.

"I get [extra] ice time this way," said Davis, a native New Englander whose red-and-white jersey bore a logo reading "The Tragically Hip" — a reference to the Canadian rock band and the fact he has had both hips replaced.

Everything about the Geri-Hatricks, it seems, fuses love of hockey with whimsy.

A banner in the rafters bears the club logo, a set of dentures chomping a hockey stick in half. The team name, brainchild of beloved founder Bill Wellington, blends the word "geriatric" with "hat trick," the hockey term for a player scoring three goals in a game.

Wellington, 89, had to quit playing two years ago. Three concussions forced his hand.

"At our age, you have to take that kind of injury seriously," Baker said. "Knowing Bill, I'm surprised [the head injuries] made much of a dent."

As the rink lights came up, players in red or gold came out to take warm-up laps.

Wellington's successor as club president, 75-year-old forward John Buchleitner of Severna Park, said one of the Geri-Hatricks' main draws is the way it attracts all kinds of people — and all levels of skaters.

The 30 or so on hand Monday, many from Anne Arundel County, were a case in point.

There was Chet Kulawiak of Millersville, 67, a Detroit native who didn't take up skating until relatively late in life — during his teens — then skipped several decades as he made a career for himself as a budget analyst.

He read about the Geri-Hatricks in the newspaper last year, signed up, and has been huffing and puffing with them ever since.

"A lot of guys our age just wrap it up and sit in front of the TV," he said, a bit of steam fogging his glasses. "Stay active if you really want to live."

There was rangy defenseman Jerry Spivak, a 60-something medical professor at Hopkins; the swift-footed Sherman, a maintenance man at a Galesville boatyard; towering right winger Marv Stocker, a silver-haired former GE sales manager who has overcome five bypass operations and a replaced knee; and Baker, a longtime salesman for a piano company who coached hockey in Columbia for decades.

Baker is a student of the game — enough so not to take it too seriously. He once broke both kneecaps on the ice, he said, and doctors told him never to play again.

One night, though, he had a few too many Budweisers and couldn't resist lacing up the skates. "I played that night," he said. "To my surprise, no major body parts fell off. Beer saved my career."

Rink rats

The Geri-Hatricks don't practice. The club has no coach, for one thing, and in any case, few of these old-timers would take kindly to the prospect of wind sprints.

Instead, as tournaments approach, they use the weekly scrimmages as a tune-up. "I want to get limber for this weekend," said Sherman, who joined the club in 2002.

As they broke into red and gold teams, the pace of play was surprisingly swift.

Alan Hangsleben, 58, a legend in these parts for the six years he spent playing in the National Hockey League, could have hogged the puck all day, but he dished it repeatedly to others.

His unselfishness set a tone. Less experienced players like Spivak, who didn't start skating until he was 14, and Buchleitner, who began well into his grown-up years, were slower afoot, but they seemed aware of open teammates, passing the puck quickly up ice.

Or was that wisdom on display? Any good player knows it takes less energy to pass a puck 30 feet than to move it the same distance himself.

"I'm slower and stiffer now, and my body's failing," said Sherman, who's still in recovery from a major back operation last year. "But as I decline in some areas, I hope I'm getting smarter in others."

Like many Geri-Hatricks, Sherman basically taught himself the game, starting out by skating on frozen rivers as a kid and later talking his way onto organized teams. Another classic rink rat, Chris Sturm of Ellicott City, learned to skate on a graveyard pond and thrived on the 1950s high school hockey scene in Baltimore.

At 77, the grizzled Sturm is less agile than he used to be. At one point the puck ended up behind him along the boards. He didn't see it.

"It's right in front of you, you old [fool]!" a gray-haired teammate hollered from the bench, to gales of laughter. The disk changed hands several times before careening to center ice, where Hangsleben seized it and headed up ice.

Like any world-class player, Hangsleben, who grew up on a farm in northern Minnesota, started skating long before kindergarten and never really stopped. He was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1973, played five years alongside legends like Gordie Howe of the old Hartford Whalers, and skated with the Washington Capitals between 1979 and 1982.

Still a magnificent skater, he took three strides to pull away from the pack, then faked the Gold team's goalie to the ice, opening up half the net.

Rather than score himself, he waited for his teammate, Buchleitner, to catch up and gave the slower man a pass. The puck bounced away.

"I could play for any team [in the area] I wanted to," said Hangsleben, a Lothian resident who works as superintendent for a roofing company. "I don't want to. The Geri-Hatricks are the greatest guys in the world. How can you have more fun than this?"

Scrubs and stars

Since forming in 1999, the Geri-Hatricks have welcomed players of all ability levels — anyone, in short, who can stand up on skates, handle plenty of aerobic exercise (body-checking is prohibited) and absorb the customary ribbing.

The club now boasts a loose membership of about 100, mostly from within an hour's drive of the rink..

At scrimmages like Monday's, Buchleitner sprinkles newbies with veterans to keep things balanced. During tournaments, he separates players by age and ability level.

This weekend's competition, for example, takes place in three age categories (players in their 50s, 60s and 70s), in both "elite" and "recreational" divisions. The Geri-Hatricks are fielding a team in five of those categories.

Over the years, the club has found a way to fare well in such competitions. In 2000, a Geri-Hatricks team won a gold medal in the National Senior Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. — and ended up, to their delight, featured in a segment on the Today show.

Others have won honors in places as far away as San Jose, Calif., Danbury, Ct., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Providence, R.I. The club now sends teams to four tournaments a year, including its own

Other than Hangsleben, the top stars of the competitive teams weren't in evidence Monday — speedsters like Jacques Veilleux, a Montreal native who lives in Laurel and competes with the 60-year-olds; Ed McGonigle of Arlington, Va., an original Geri-Hatrick who played for Yale during the 1950s, and Joel McGrath, a Massachusetts-born skater who nearly made the U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal at Squaw Valley, Utah, in 1960.

"Those guys do most of the scoring [in tournaments]," says Buchleitner. "The rest of us try to hold on the best we can and keep the other team from putting the puck in the net."

As for this weekend's games, which commence Friday afternoon and end late Sunday morning, Baker was optimistic, though he's still wary of those Minnesotans — a squad that boasts several players from that legendary Squaw Valley team.

Others, like Sherman, were less hopeful. Players who travel long distances to out-of-town tournaments tend to be the better ones, he says, and he doubts his 70s "rec" team will be able to compete.

"I don't think we'll win a game," he said. "But you know what? This isn't the NHL. We'll get to see a few old friends [from the other teams]. The camaraderie will be good. As long as we play all right, it'll be fine with me."

Keeping score

In the locker room after the scrimmage, no one seemed to know, or care, which side had won. They were worn out, feeling good, and measuring things in other ways.

The bald-pated Sturm said he had redeemed himself after his blunder along the boards. "I raised hell out there," he roared. "Did you see the goal I scored? I can't see, I can't hear, and I can't [urinate properly], but I can skate."

Others, peeling off their uniforms, compared war wounds. Several flashed scars from heart surgeries, torn shoulders, joint replacements.

Spivak, the Hopkins doctor, lost two knee ligaments in an accidental collision several years back.

He showed off a cumbersome knee brace.

"My orthopedist told me I'd never skate again," he said, laughing.

And in many ways, that's the real point of Geri-Hatricks. No one expects the silver-haired set to be playing a younger man's game, yet here they are, still giving life a chomp.

"When you're around sports, you hear that cliché, 'Take it one day at a time,'" Buchleitner said. "When you get to be a certain age, you think a little bit about how many days you have left. You want to enjoy every one."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

If you go

What: The 8th Annual Geri-Hatricks Ice Hockey Tournament

Where: The Gardens Ice House, 13800 Old Gunpowder Road, Laurel

When: Games played Fri., Mar. 18, from 1–11:30 p.m.; Sat., Mar. 19, from 8 a.m.–7:45 p.m.; Sun., Mar. 20, from 8:30 a.m.–noon

Admission: Free

For more information on the Geri-Hatricks, visit gerihatricks.com.

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