Mike Duggan and his hockey pals were getting into gear one recent morning when they joked, as they often do, about joint replacement surgeries.
Duggan, 74, the proud owner of an artificial hip, marveled at the sheer number of titanium body parts in the locker room. He gestured toward Mitch Boriskin, who was moving on a pair of roller skates along the opposite wall.
“I don’t think there’s an original part to you,” Duggan said.
Boriskin, 70, smiled. “Two fake knees, one spinal cord stimulator, 25 surgeries,” he began, as if he were reciting sheet music.
“And a lobotomy,” Duggan chimed in, as laughter filled the room.
All that titanium, at least, was being put to good use. His team, the Oregon Old Growth, had joined dozens of others from across North America to compete this month in the Snoopy Senior hockey tournament in Santa Rosa, California, about 60 miles north of San Francisco.
The tournament has become a summer ritual for hundreds of recreational players, all between the ages of 40 and 90, who gather each year at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, where Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip and lifelong hockey fan, founded the event in 1975.
By now, everyone knows what to expect: the skating is slow, the jokes go by fast, and the laughs flow as freely as beer.
“If you like to dry paint, you’re going to be blown away,” said Larry Meredith, 82, captain of the Berkeley Bears, a team in the tournament’s 70-plus division.
Playing sports can seem like a youth game. Maybe you compete in high school, maybe you’ll find a regular casual game, or a beer league after college. But eventually, families, jobs, and the other obstacles of adult life conspire to push you away.
However, these senior skaters represent a generation that has gone further and further back in this timeline. They understand how exercise and camaraderie can be beneficial to both body and mind. They hold on tight to the games they love, even when their bodies are begging them to reconsider.
“You don’t quit because you get old, you get old because you quit,” said Rich Haskell, 86, a player from New Port Richey, Florida. “A friend of mine died a couple of years ago. He played hockey in the morning, died at night. You can’t do better than that.”
The tournament has the feel of a week-and-a-half-long summer camp. RVs and RVs fill the arena parking lot, where players drink beer, grill meat and mingle between games.
The names of this year’s teams—California Antiques, Michigan Oldtimers, Seattle Seniles, and Colorado Fading Stars, to name a few—nodded to the players’ advancing age and evolved sense of humor.
“We used to just be the Colorado All-Stars,” said Rich Maslow, 74, the team’s goaltender. “But then we turned 70.”
Maslow and his teammates were scheduled to play that day at 6:30 a.m., the earliest time, which meant they had to meet before sunrise.
“We all have to get up at 5:30 to pee anyway, so we might as well play some hockey,” said Craig Kocian, 78, of Arvada, Colo., as they dressed for the game.
Kocian described himself as having “adult hockey syndrome.” But many other participants started playing the game as children and let the game entwine throughout the decades of their lives.
Among them was 83-year-old Terry Harper, who played 19 seasons as a defenseman in the NHL. When he retired, he threw away his equipment, he said, and for the next 10 years he stayed off the ice. But in 1992, a neighbor convinced him to go to Santa Rosa, and Harper, who grew up playing games in his backyard in Saskatchewan, felt a long-dormant pleasure center reactivate in his brain.
“I came here and had the best time I’ve ever had in hockey,” said Harper, who, it should be noted, won five Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens. “There was no pressure, the trip. I found out that hockey is fun.”
Harper, who was playing for the Bears, took his time on the ice. Changing direction, for one thing, required a couple more heartbeats than before. But his club handling and anticipation betrayed his experience, and he was smiling throughout the game, even after taking a beating to the face.
“I got hit on the chin!” Harper squealed happily as she skated over to the bench, sticking out her tongue to check for blood.
Harper and the other players said hockey just made them feel good. He gave them a method and a reason to avoid the natural effects of aging.
And when sliding on skates, they might actually generate some speed.
“If we tried to run, we wouldn’t go anywhere,” Maslow said.
But the players also hinted at something less tangible, a whirlwind of individuality, ritualism and sensory memory, that drew them back to the ice week after week.
“It’s part of who I am, and that feeling is really powerful,” Meredith said of playing hockey. “Maybe that’s why I stay, because it reminds me of going to a rink, smelling those smells that you can only find in an indoor ice rink, those hockey smells.”
Schulz was the same way. He ate breakfast and lunch at the track, which he had built and dedicated in 1969. Spending most of the day working at the drawing board, he viewed his Tuesday night games as a kind of spiritual balm.
“I used to say: ‘It’s the only thing that gives me pleasure,’” said Jean Schulz, his widow.
He played until his death, at the age of 77, in 2000. Many players said they would like to do the same.
But if the specter of injuries and bodily impermanence hangs over the tournament, the older players neutralize it with dark humor.
Bob Carolan, 82, a retired pulmonologist from Eugene, Oregon, recalled an incident about 15 years ago in which he revived a player on the ice who was having a heart attack.
“The best play I ever made on Snoopy,” said Carolan, who met the same man in a tournament 10 years later. He “he had an implantable defibrillator, but he kept playing.”
After their morning game, the Fading Stars came off the ice and shed their gear. A box of Coors Light came out. It was 7:40 am Noticing the brewery logo on the team’s sweaters, a visitor asked if he was a sponsor.
“The only sponsorship we’re looking for is Viagra,” said Murray Platt, 68, of Denver.
Dave McCay, 72, of Denver, also caught a cold, scoring four goals in the team’s opener, twisting an ankle in the second and reaching third with a walking boot.
That leg had given him trouble before (he was holding a photo showing 12 screws, a steel rod, and a plate) and his wife had already begun to gently question his priorities. But slowing down hasn’t crossed his mind.
“I’m convinced that this gives you a better quality of life,” McCay said, leaning on a pair of crutches, “even if you have to limp a bit.”