Fighting to catch my breath on the bench after a shift on the ice during which younger, faster, stronger players breezed past me as if I were a pylon, it came to me that maybe, just maybe, the game of hockey has gotten away from me. At times like this, retirement sounds like a good plan.
After all, I retired from my job a few years ago, so why not sound the buzzer on my beer-league hockey career and hang up my skates?
Then again, the idea of packing up my gear crosses my mind just about every season, but every season I wind up back on the ice twice a week, shuffling around, scrambling to get my stick on the puck and trying to keep up with my teammates. But this year was different.
I missed the first three months of the season because of a health scare over an irregular heart beat. When I returned, in January, it was as if I had never played a game in my life. Things were just too fast. I am the oldest player on my team by at least 20 years and, at 63, I'm one of the oldest in the entire league. I only began playing competitively when I turned 50 through a learn-to-play hockey program.
I'm sure there are players in this league who still don't need to shave every day, but they're usually going too fast for me to tell.
I also play in another league, a true old-timers' outfit, where I am one of the younger players. The pace here is decidedly slower and the games are usually testosterone-free. And, like a kids' house league, each fall the league assigns players to the various teams so your opponent one year could be your teammate the next.
Whenever I consider the retirement option, I start to reflect on past events and try to sum up my hockey career. Just what did I accomplish playing for my beer-league team over the past 12 years or so? (I can no longer remember the year I joined.)
Did I mention this was a beer-league team? I don't want to say my teammates are fixated on the beverage, but there have been many, many more e-mails circulating before games about beer than any other issue, such as injuries or line combinations or our win-loss record.
I can proudly say that had it not been for me, the team would still be drinking cheap domestic brew instead of the far more thirst-quenching European pilsners I started bringing when it was my turn.
And I helped to codify the team rules concerning beer: 24 large cans in the dressing room, chilled, at least 30 minutes before game time for those players hoping to quench their thirst early; $20 fine for late delivery, wrong size or wrong type of beverage; rotation turn based on sweater number, starting each year with the lowest number.
By the way, beer is so prevalent in this league that the arena staff has placed marked garbage cans in all the dressing rooms for the empties so they don't have to fish them out of the regular bins.
I also managed to convince both my grown sons to play for a season or two, which greatly raised the skill level on the team for they are fine players.
And it was me who coined the unofficial team mantra: Win the Last Game. No matter how poorly we were playing during the season, if we won the last game of the playoffs, we'd get some sort of prize from the league. We had many lousy seasons redeemed just by winning that final game. Aside from often being out of my depth on the ice, my age makes me fundamentally different from my teammates. I truly am not of their world.
Many have young families, some are recently married. They have careers, run businesses and many are just settling into middle age. They might not be able to articulate it in this way, but being around an older person must remind them of their own mortality, and who wants to think about that? I know when I was young, I would sometimes feel uncomfortable around a much older person for that very reason.
If I quit, it would be more than just the actual game that I'd miss, of course - it would be the friendships, the shared sense of purpose, the laughs and the high jinks before and after the games.
I would even miss the routine of getting dressed to play: left sock on first, followed by the right, then left shin guard and so on up to elbow pads and skates. But I might not miss the 50-kilometre round trip from my home to the rink and back.
Many players have come and gone since I first joined, but only four were there before me or joined soon after: Hammer, Blockerman, Gentleman Joe and Angry Teach. My nickname? The Vet.
When I was off skates in the fall, I went to see a couple of the games and was really chuffed that the guys made me feel that I was still part of the team, inviting me in for beers post-game. I know they would never, ever suggest that I should quit. In fact, during my health problem, they told me to take whatever time I needed to recover.
When I went back to play in January, they made me feel as if I had never left. They even gave me my old sweater back.
It's not for nothing the team is called the Saints.
Quitting? Maybe I'll think about it again in the fall - after the summer season.
Rick Haliechuk lives in Toronto.
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