Senior winter Olympic games include ice hockey, curling events
Seventy-two-year-old Frank Early sat in the locker room of the Gardens Ice House in Fairland Regional Park last Saturday, suiting up for a hockey game and remembering the time he had a heart attack mid-game a few years back.
When asked if it slowed down his playing, he scoffs.
"Hard as ever," he said. "You don't think these guys would let me play with them if I didn't, do you?"
Looking around the room, several other seniors tell "war stories" of hockey injuries as they suit up for the second annual Maryland Senior Olympic Winterfest. The love of the game, desire for fraternity and a need for rigorous physical activity keep these men passionate about the game past retirement, they say.
John Buchleitner, a 73-year-old from Severna Park, started playing hockey in 2000 when a team called the Gerihatricks started regularly playing at the ice house. Since then, he started organizing the hockey portion of the senior Olympics event, which this year also included curling. Players come from all over the state of Maryland, and sometimes from other states, to participate in the 50+ event.
"It's amazing," he said. "When you get the word out, you get all typespeople who have played hockey their whole lives and those who started after retirement."
For both the hockey and the curling teams, the senior winter Olympics are used to get the word out about their clubs. The Potomac Curling Club, which meets next door to the Gardens Ice House, used the event as an open house for seniors who had never picked up a broom to sweep a stone across the ice before.
"There are very few of us that are seniors," said Ken Wray, 68, of Gaithersburg. He said the team is reaching out to seniors in the area for the sport because it provides cardiovascular exercise but can accommodate people with injuries. Beyond that, senior winter sports like curling and hockey create a sense of camaraderie among participants, the team members say.
"I've met people up and down the East Coast, and I wouldn't have ever met them if it weren't for curling," said Howard Griffin, 60, of Columbia. New learners and the curling team members drank hot chocolate around a table in the curling center in a "broom stacking," or traditional post-game social gathering.
The same goes for many hockey players' explanation of why they participate in senior hockey tournaments.
"You meet up once a week [for practice], you play a couple games, have a couple beers and go home," said Tom Hendrix, 63, of Columbia. "... It's like a country club. You go in and see the same group of guys. Now we're at the point where we're losing people. They're dying. But you still give everyone the same razzmatazz."
As the players take the ice in the second of two games, they tease each other and playfight on the ice as their kids and grandkids watch. After several minutes of play between the Gerihatricks and the Retreads, one of the goalie's knees locked up and he had to be pulled across the ice and into the locker room.
"At these games, when someone falls, the whole crowd gasps," explained Buchleitner's daughter, Lisa Martinez, as the goalie dropped his stick and was helped off the ice.
Injuries rarely stop the players from reentering the rink, though.
"It's a sport where when you're over 60, you feel alive," said Kevin McMahon, 61, of Columbia. "It's just a great feeling when you're getting warmed up that you can still do this."