It was early on a cold, dark morning and I couldn’t figure out what the retirement-aged gentleman was doing pulling hockey equipment from his car in the parking lot at Tamo-O-Shanter. Perhaps delivering gear to his grandson in time for pre-dawn high school practice? Taking stuff to the re-sale shop? A break-in?
Turns out, he was there to play. A half hour later he was on the ice with more than 20 other guys aged 50 to 84 (that’s right – 84) playing 90 minutes of hockey – a ritual that has taken place at Tamo every Wednesday and Friday, beginning at 6:30 am, for more than 20 years.
“We do it for the love of the game,” explains Marty Vugrinac, the coordinator of the group. “Out on the ice none of us feel that old; our brains tell us that we are much younger. The body doesn’t move quite as fast, but it’s like a fountain of youth every morning that we’re here on the ice.”
“Tamo has been very good to us,” Marty says. “We rent the ice and everyone pays $10 a game to participate. These are just local guys, and our rental arrangement with the rink allows us to monitor who is here. Over the years we’ve had a few younger players show up who were a little too aggressive, and I asked them not to come back. None of us are out to kill anybody … we just want to burn a few calories and have some fun.”
That’s why 84 year old Dave Kananen wakes up at 5 am twice a week, does some stretching, and drives the 40 miles from his home near Napoleon to Sylvania. “I do it because I enjoy it,” Dave tells me. “Skating is so easy on your body … you’re not pounding on anything, just gliding along.”
“I played some pick-up hockey games on ponds growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; they teach kids up there to do that before they learn to walk,” he deadpans. “But I really started playing when I was 60 so that I would have something to do after I retired.”
Dave lost his wife seven years ago and had some physical health battles over the years which were “really tough times,” he says. Teammate Marty agrees that there were a few years where, “Some of the guys felt that Dave might be done. But we all encouraged him not to quit, to keep going. He’s the guy we all want to be.”
The younger side of the senior-citizen hockey group is represented by player Rick Payeff, who is 58. He didn’t play hockey growing up but always loved the game and followed the Toronto Maple Leafs because he had “a lot of family” in the Canadian city.
“When I was 35, I decided to play to stay in shape and just enjoy the game,” Rick explains. “It’s not all about the hockey, for sure, it’s about the relationships. There are a lot of good guys here; one group goes out for breakfast after every game. And if you need help with anything, there is someone here with the knowhow to help you out.”
When you watch these guys play before dawn at Tamo, it is easy to miss the fact that the oldest active player today in the National Hockey League was just 40 at the start of this season. The oldest player in NHL history was the magnificent Gordy Howe, who played his last game of a 32-season career with the Detroit Red Wings when he was 52.
Howe also took a one-shift turn in 1997 for the International League’s Detroit Vipers when he was 69, making him hockey’s only six-decade professional. He also played several post-NHL seasons with Houston and New England when the World Hockey Association was formed 1973. Those four years also gave him the opportunity to play with his two sons who were also on those teams.
After their workout on the day I visited, a few of the local players made me aware that at some point after his pro career, Howe moved just minutes away from Tamo to live in the Sylvania home of his son, physician Murray Howe. They say he quietly joined their group on the ice a few times when they were still playing in Bowling Green … before the move to our local rec complex.
When he neared his 75th birthday, Gordy Howe spoke to the Detroit Free Press about his long career. “There is no doubt in my mind that it was my love for the game,” he said. “I tell kids, if you don’t love it, get out of the way for someone who does.”
That seems to be the unspoken rule of Dave Kananen’s teammates, too—to give their senior member the space to enjoy his playing time each week. “These guys are always super … like an extended family,” Kananen says. “And they let me glide wherever I want on the ice. If I couldn’t play hockey anymore, it would be awful. That’s my secret; to just keep movin’.”