With 10 seconds left in the shift, Tim Fowler, 52, controls the bouncing puck near his own net, wheels around, and sprints toward the other end of the rink. As the clock ticks down, he zooms past two defenders, floats to his right, and fires a perfect wrist shot into the far left side of the goal. No horn blares, no sirens flash, and the only sound of adulation comes from his teammates on the bench banging their sticks against the Northwest Ice Rink's boards. But make no mistake about it: This goal matters, since it's put his blue team up 1-0. But there's still plenty of hockey to be played.
For the Over the Hill Gang and dozens of other baby boomers—and a handful of men old enough to have sired them—there's always plenty of hockey left. A small but fiercely passionate adult men's hockey community flourishes in Baltimore, a city not known as a hockey hotbed. Yet year after year, as their skin sags and hairlines recede, their burning love for the game and the thrill it provides does not flicker.
"A couple years ago, I tore my medial collateral in my knee completely," says Jerry Spivak, a professor of medicine and oncology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "My orthopedist said, 'That will be your last game.'" But as a few patients have doubtlessly done to him through the years, Spivak ignored his doctor's advice and still plays weekly.
"It's one of those games that once you start playing, you never want to get away from it," he says. "It's a lot of exercise and competition, but it's extremely challenging and enjoyable. There's nothing better than getting out on the ice."
Every Thursday night at 10:30, as has happened for more than 40 years, the aging Mt. Washington rink plays host to the gang of about 20 core players. On this drizzly late September evening early in the season, players' ages range from 31 to 74, their occupations from doctor to salesman to envied retiree. Once on the ice, however, differences melt away as quickly as the stress of everyday life.
"This is the best escape in the world," says 54-year-old Steve Cohen, who runs the group and has played with it since he was 26. Come hell or high water—or worse—the Over the Hill Gang's games go on.
"Before I got here, we heard that a guy dropped dead of a heart attack on the ice," Cohen recounts. "They took him away, then went on playing."
Fortunately, there was no need to clear any victims of cardiac arrest from the playing surface tonight, and the game faces off incident-free. Fowler's goal comes 15 minutes into the action, which starts fast but then slows. With just 18 guys tonight, the two-minute shifts seem like eternity. Some pull doubles, skating four straight minutes in a sport where professionals usually play for only about 40 second spurts. Halfway through the game, it's knotted at 2-2. The intensity is high, but the players are able to keep a sense of perspective. No checking or hitting is allowed, and the sticks stay low.
"The score matters for about two minutes after the game," says Bill Smillie, 57. "Then we go get a beer."
Before Johnny U and the Colts won their first title and the Orioles wandered into town, hockey was one of Baltimore's most popular sports. It thrived in the 1940's and early 1950's, when many of the city's high schools fielded teams and competed against one another. But the on-ice death of a player, decaying facilities, and the city's changing demographics conspired to drive it into remission.
Chris Sturm played for Forest Park High, and hasn't been able to shake the hockey bug since. Not that he's tried. At a spry 74, he still laces up his skates at least once a week.
"I love the competition, the thrill of sharing the contact and the camaraderie," says Strum, who now lives in Easton. "I think if I stopped playing, I'd fall apart."
He almost has. Strum has undergone open-heart surgery, and he plays with a pacemaker. Such maladies are no more bothersome than a hangnail to many members of the Gerihatricks, a 60-and-older team based in Laurel that competes in tournaments throughout the U.S. Each Wednesday, Strum and the group of 60-, 70-, and 80-somethings gather for scrimmages at the Gardens Ice House.
In the locker room before the game, the guys suit up while dishing out one-liners quicker than a Wayne Gretzky slap shot.
"He's 60, but he plays like he's 75."
"He could once move like Bobby Orr—only difference is, Bobby Orr passed once in a while."
But for the wrinkled faces and thinning white hair, this could be a bunch of high school kids preparing for practice.
Everyone wears a helmet with full face mask, so those who still have their own teeth don't have to worry about losing them.
"At our age, we all wear birdcages," says Iver Mindel, 63, of Cockeysville. "Everyone wears a cup, because you can make false teeth. . . ."
The vibe in here is Grumpy Old Men meets Slap Shot, a troop of old friends happy to see each other and grateful that their bodies have granted them another week of play.
Bill Wellington, 86, started the team in the mid 1990's. He grew up playing hockey in Detroit during the depression, using second-hand skates and folded-up magazines for knee pads. After serving as an Army pilot in Burma during World War II, earning a degree in economics, and marrying and raising six children, he returned to the sport in the late 1960's, before the NHL's Washington Capitals even existed. Watching him walk into the rink from the parking lot as briskly as a tortoise, wheeling his equipment bag behind him, he looks as if he's been playing hockey since before Washington was the capital.
As he pulls shin guards, knee pads, and other gear out of the blue bag, he points to a laminated card that lists his medical conditions, "just in case." Prostate surgery, 1992. Hernia surgery. Sleep apnea surgery. Following not one, but two, hip-replacement surgeries, his doctors tried to convince him to give up the game, but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
"Hockey is an amalgam of different sports," says Wellington, who discusses the game in almost mythical terms. "It's got the speed of basketball, the teamwork of soccer, and the puck flies faster than most baseballs. Take all of that, and you're on skates."
Out on the ice, Wellington and his mates move with a stunning fluidity. With no clutching, grabbing, or checking, the pace of play is surprisingly frenetic. Hidden by their puffy padding and masks, these guys could almost be mistaken for men half their age.
Back at Northwest Ice Rink, Mike Bittinger is playing with the fervor of a boy among men. Well, like a youngish man among older ones. The 31-year-old slithers past a pair of defensemen, deftly flips the puck over an opponent's stick, and puts the biscuit in the basket to give the white team a 3-2 advantage. The move draws oohs and ahhs from some of the players, and a couple of sarcastic comments about his age.
"I was playing with his father before he was married," 74-year-old Bobby Gross says as he skates off the ice for a brief moment of rest.
Bittinger's dad, Terry, is home nursing an injury, but that doesn't stop Mike from making the hour-plus drive from his home in Pennsylvania.
"I like coming out here because no one has egos or wants to fight, they just love to play," he says.
The Tuesday night games at Mt. Pleasant Ice Arena can get a bit chippier. Steve Morlock has run the Mt. Pleasant No-Check Hockey League for 21 years, which despite its name, is not devoid of physicality.
"Any time you play a contact sport, there's going to be stuff from time to time," he says. "We have two or three altercations a year. Normally the first 15 weeks are pretty calm, then the playoffs are pretty intense. There are only four teams. You and I might play against each other and hate each other then play with each other the next session and say, 'He's not a bad guy.' Or we could still hate each other."
With referees, scorekeepers, and two 23-minute periods, the play at Mt. Pleasant is much more structured. That resonates with some players, like Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Mickey Norman, who's played in the league for more than 20 years.
"I find the sport philosophically fascinating," he says. "You're on narrow blades, you have a stick in your hand and you're maneuvering this small object while moving faster than you normally move. You have all these things that can fly out of control at any moment. The art of it is trying to control all of that while someone is trying to run you over."
Norman has persevered through four knee operations, though he's quick to add that only two were hockey-related.
"The nature of the game is gliding," he says. "One of the things I believe is that you can have injuries and still play."
Many players echo Norman's thoughts. Though it's rare to talk to someone who hasn't suffered an on-ice injury, most believe the sport is beneficial, not harmful, to their health.
"The most common things we see are knee and shoulder injuries," says Dr. Samuel Matz, medical director of LifeBridge Health Sports Medicine. "From the standpoint that ice skating is a non-pounding sport like running, it's less traumatic. But like any activity that people are engaged in, there's a risk of injury. But the hockey players I talk to really love playing and they love the camaraderie. So I think, on balance, the relatively low risk of injury is not enough for me to say to these boomers they shouldn't do it. I think it's wonderful exercise."
With just a few minutes left in the Thursday night game in Mt. Washington, Bill Smillie definitely would agree. Like many of the guys tonight, he's sucking some serious wind between shifts. It's 60.5 degrees rinkside, and everyone is sweating.
A native of Montreal, Smillie took a 30-year hiatus from the game before returning to it three years ago.
"It's like sex—you don't forget," he says. "You just don't have the legs and lungs anymore."
When the final horn sounds, the white team has won 5-2. After a few quick congratulatory handshakes, everyone waddles into the lobby to change. Some dress quickly and head for home, others linger to socialize, and a few set out for the Curb Shop, a Falls Road bar just around the corner.
At the pub, seven guys drink Oliver Ale, made by one of their compatriots, Bill Oliver. As they have in weeks, months, years, decades past, they snack on popcorn, sip the cold brew, trade barbs, hockey stories, and laughs.
Just before 1 in the morning, Jerry Spivak heads out into the quiet fall night. In less than seven hours, he'll be doing medical rounds again at Hopkins. But more importantly, in less than seven days, he'll be back out on the ice.