Just apply ice

The Baltimore Sun

John Buchleitner's blue eyes dart back and forth behind thin-framed glasses as he watches the black puck zoom across the rink. He grits his teeth, revealing a missing tooth, and clears the puck with one swift movement of his stick, passing it to a teammate.

Beneath his hockey pads, Buchleitner's joints ache and his knee twinges from the pain of an old hockey-related injury. His ease on the ice, although slower and more deliberate than the pros, masks his greatest athletic disadvantage: his years.

"Age slows you down a lot," says Buchleitner, 72, a Severna Park resident, who admits that playing hockey helps slow the natural aging process, but doesn't allow him to escape it. "You're definitely slower, but your mind thinks you're fast."

Buchleitner is captain of the Gerihatricks, a Laurel-based senior hockey team founded in 2000 that comprises a dozen or so ripened players who refuse to go sour. The team is the brainchild of recreational hockey veteran Billy Wellington, who continues to whiz around the rink at 87.

"I don't embarrass easily," says Wellington, of Silver Spring, who jokes that he has been playing hockey since "conception." Wellington, like many of the players, learned the sport by playing pond hockey as a kid.

As the name implies, good-natured jokes are commonplace when the Gerihatricks occupy the locker rooms of the Gardens Ice House in Laurel. There the team and other "recreational" hockey veterans - a handful of whom are former Washington Capitals players - command the ice every Wednesday morning from 10:30 to noon.

Lately they've been spending their time on the ice practicing rigorously, preparing for the Sixth Annual Gerihatricks Tournament next month. It's a competition they plan and run themselves, and it attracts teams from as far away as Michigan and Minnesota who pay $1,000 each for three days (March 20-22) on the ice.

And, ever the gentlemen, the Gerihatricks plan to keep the players' wives busy, too: they'll get pampered with manicures as their husbands slap sticks.

Serious tournament training aside, the guys don't let competition get the best of their humor.

One player reminisces of his dreams to be a Zamboni driver, another jokes of his burgeoning physical ailments, and the rest trade jabs for being on the wrong side of 60.

"Somebody passed me the puck, and it was way in front of me and I didn't get it," Buchleitner recounts through spurts of laughter, "and the goalie said, 'You're even slower than you thought you were!' "

The guys' lightheartedness creates a comfortable atmosphere, allowing for laid-back games without the violent checking or chippy rough-housing that's characteristic of youthful hockey players.

"The only time we hit anybody now is when we can't get out of the way," says former Capitals player and Annapolis resident Alan Hangsleben, 55.

But with most players battling a major injury or medical condition, prudence on the ice is necessary. Buchleitner says the team is speckled with people who've had cancer, lung surgery, heart problems, dangerously high cholesterol and joint problems.

Buchleitner has had recurring skin cancer and knee surgery; Wellington underwent two hip replacements in the 1990s.

A few years ago, one player fell backward and hit his head on the ice, earning him an ambulance trip to the emergency room. For the most part, players refrain from aggressive physical contact on the ice. Once in a while, though, frustration overrides caution, and someone will shove a teammate with his arm, the hockey equivalent to a flick on the wrist.

"You'll break bones if you're not gentle," warns Colesville resident Tom Tanton, 66.

A deep-rooted devotion to the game overrides the worrisome fragility of getting older, team members say.

"You realize what you've been missing," says Hangsleben, who began with the Gerihatricks four years ago after some time off the ice. "The game will be out of you, but you'll never be out of the game."

More enticing than the exhilaration of playing, most players say, is the camaraderie of the group: former NHL players, who could score at will, intentionally hang back and pass the puck; nobody stares when a player's age gets the best of him and he tumbles on the ice; and the locker room doesn't empty of laughing retirees until well after practice.

"It's a great bunch of guys," says Greg Smith, 52, from Annapolis. "If that doesn't give you incentive, I don't know what does."

Smith is one of many men who air out their skates on Wednesdays but don't typically participate in tournaments.

"I think people like to be part of something, we all have a clanning extinct," Buchleitner says. "This is an involvement with older people who all know they are getting old and who all share the aging process willingly and they want to enjoy it, so the socialization is very important."

Buchleitner points to Wellington, a former World War II fighter pilot who keeps the team in a constant state of laughter and commands the puck with exponentially more skill than is expected at his age.

"He has a purpose," Buchleitner says. "He hasn't surrendered to anything. He hasn't surrendered to his age."

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Find more photos and a video about the Gerihatricks at baltimoresun.com/arundel

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