No matter which teammate walked into the Seattle Ironmen locker room wearing pajamas and boots during a recent outdoor hockey tournament at Winthrop Rink, you know what happened next. Zingers. Several of them, from all sides, fired off like pucks during a shooting drill. Followed by laughter and a rejoinder from Mr. PJs-and-Boots, who is laughing himself.
"The locker room and group of guys is the biggest thing, you hang out, joking on the bench," says Luc Boileau when asked why he plays hockey in his 50s. "It's fun to go to the rink. I cannot imagine not playing hockey."
During the recent Great Puckaroo Roundup at Winthrop's jewel of a rink in north central Washington, Boileau scored eight goals in four games along with dozens of exhortations of his Ironmen teammates, who split those four games into two wins and two losses.
Boileau was joined by a chorus of Ironmen, including the outdoor tourney's oldest player, Patrick Schneider, 67, and long-time player and now coach, Dan Hathaway. The team's bench is a chatterbox: shouts of encouragement mixed with advising where a teammate should be on the ice, directions from Schneider on which line of forwards gets next shift on the ice, wisecracks, compliments, belly laughs and, like every hockey bench, lots of recovery breathing.
"Let's keep it positive," said Schneider after a puck deflected off an Ironmen defenseman's stick into his own team's net. "We stay together. We play hard and have fun."
While competitive, the team clearly embraces the camaraderie along with the ebbs and flows. They held their own and then some at the Great Puckaroo tournament playing against teams that, on average, 15 to 20 years younger across positions. The team practices every Monday night during the hockey season and plays Wednesday games for a team sponsored by Moonshine BBQ in Lynnwood. The team takes several road trips each year, most recently to the Great Puckaroo Roundup in late January.
"I started with the Ironmen group 18 years ago," said Schneider during a rinkside interview at Great Puckaroo. "I have played in the Snoopy tournament (a 40-and-over event started more than 40 years ago by the late "Peanuts" creator, Charles Schultz, in Santa Rosa, CA). We go to Las Vegas, Sun Valley, here in Winthrop. The open air at this rink reminds me of being a kid again [when Schneider and neighborhood kids played "shinny" on a frozen pond behind his house in Worcester, MA]."
"This is my first Puckaroo," said Boileau, whose father played for Seattle Totems during the 1960s and later coached the World Hockey Association's Quebec Nordiques (now the NHL Colorado Avalanche and the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. "I grew up playing on the ponds in Montreal. This is over-the-top, so much fun."
The Ironmen coach, Dan Hathaway, watched pro hockey games at the Civic Arena on Mercer Street in the 1950s, long before the Seattle Coliseum and its iconic roof was built. Hathaway started playing recreational hockey in his early 20s, joining two men's leagues. Along with his work life-20 years at Dooley's restaurant and later food service sales-Hathaway helped start youth leagues and worked games as a referee. He rekindled his playing days when he turned 50. He played 13 seasons with the Ironmen, turning to coaching five years ago.
"I was planning to step away completely, but the guys wanted me to stay part of the team," he said. "I'm glad to be part of it. Hockey is a fun game, exciting. In other sports, you play one position. In hockey, you are all over the ice."
While many Ironmen players started the sport as tykes-three years old seems to the magical entry point, especially in Canada-others, like Hathaway, started as adults. Seattleite Larry Calter's hockey career took a particular twist. He learned how to skate at Lynnwood Ice Center at 41 years old.
"I never skated before, never did it," said Calter, an Ironmen regular who was "loaned" to Real Bacon for the Great Puckaroo weekend, reuniting with other hockey friends and teammates. "But my doctor told me walking the golf course was not good enough. At 41, I decided to learn how to skate, so I did. Me and a bunch of four-years-old at the end of the rink."
Calter said he hopes to play into his 70s and loves "the physical nature" of the sport. His teammates, Dean Dunlop, 55 has played since he was three years old in his native Canada. Dunlop is what's called a "shutdown, stay-at-home defensemen" who moves the puck up ice to goal-scoring forwards like Boileau and "take off the front of the net and our goalie" by physically moving away opponents. In Winthrop, he did expertly four straight games against any number of younger players.
"I don't think about age out there," said Dunlop. "I see jerseys. If it's another color, that's the guy I am going to deal with…50 years later I still play because of your buddies in the locker room. They're my best friends. If you can't joke around with buddies, who can you joke around with, who can you kid? No one takes it personally. It's what hockey players do. Even the pros do it."