Next Steps: Putting Age on Ice

Photo | Syl Sobel Kentlands resident Mike Demers, a member of the GeriHatricks hockey team, waits to take the ice at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel.

Photo | Syl Sobel
Kentlands resident Mike Demers, a member of the GeriHatricks hockey team, waits to take the ice at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel.

For many people seeking to stay active as they age, playing sports is a popular activity. Golf, tennis, pickleball and even softball for the team-oriented are sports that many seniors choose to stay fit, engage with other people, and do something they enjoy.

But for Kentlands resident Mike Demers and more than 100 other residents of the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, their sport of choice may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of outlets for active seniors: ice hockey.

Welcome to the GeriHatricks, a senior ice hockey club that provides men and even a few women in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and yes, 80s an opportunity to come to the Gardens Ice House in Laurel, don their skates, helmets and equipment, get on the ice, and play a more than passable game of hockey.

“It’s a great experience,” said Demers, one of about 30 GeriHatricks playing at a recent Thursday morning pick-up session for players 65 and over. His rationale for taking the ice resonates with the rest of the GeriHatricks: He’s played hockey for most of his life. Why stop now?

“You know, once you retire, a lot of people, they don’t know what to do with themselves,” said Demers, a retired building supplies sales rep. “And some people pick up on what they used to love when they were younger. This happens to be one of those things.”

The GeriHatricks offer drop-in sessions three times a week—Mondays and Wednesdays for players 50 and over and the Thursday session for 65 and over—and a league on Tuesdays for two teams of players 70 and over.

Kevin McMahon, the club’s director, said the players range from lifelong pick-up players like himself, to former college and high school hockey players, to even a few former professional hockey players. McMahon, who prefers to call himself a “facilitator—we’re not directors or managers, we just help make things work,” said there are even some novice players, “guys 50, 60 years old who decided to play hockey. They learn, they pick it up fast enough.”

The GeriHatricks recently hosted their 15th annual tournament for senior teams mostly from up and down the East Coast, and even a team from Ontario. This year’s tournament had 18 teams, but past tournaments have had as many as 28 teams, including one from Minnesota with a 93-year-old player.

“It’s a great experience,” Demers said of his reasons for playing hockey in his 60s. “The camaraderie in the locker room. … You get to know the guys on a deeper level. Then of course on the ice the adrenalin flows as you’re playing. You’re trying to score or make a pass to someone to score. It’s like a team effort. I love every part of it.”

Demers was born in Montreal and grew up playing hockey. He can recall skating down frozen streets with his friends for half an hour to a local outdoor ice rink, and then shoveling snow off the ice to play hockey. He continued playing hockey even after his family moved to Gaithersburg when he was 10.

He heard about the GeriHatricks a few years ago, “so I went out there to try it,” he said. He admitted that the first time out he was “rusty … but I came a couple of times and I got the bug again. I started getting some of my skills back, and I just really enjoyed it.”

Demers loves sports and also golfs and is a regular at the Kentlands tennis courts. He has coached his children and others in club and beginner level hockey. An Air Force veteran, he has also been involved in sled hockey and tennis programs for “wounded warrior” military veterans.

“I like to see people pick up on sports and enjoy it and all the benefits that come out of it. And it’s more gratifying for me than it is for them in the end.”

But with a medical history that includes surgeries on his shoulder, lower back and neck—none of them directly related to hockey—Demers realizes that his playing days may be winding down.

“I want to keep healthy as long as I can,” he said, acknowledging that with his various injuries, “it’s becoming harder and harder.”

“I play with pain . … It’s that important to me. I’ll stand a certain amount of pain and play anyway,” he said. “Giving it up would be hard, but I would stay involved somehow, coaching or something like that.”

In the meantime, Demers will continue to join McMahon and the other GeriHatricks in their regular pick-up sessions, play without fear of checking (“except sometimes you play around with someone you know,” Demers admitted), poke their sticks and comic jabs at each other (“This guy’s 80-something,” McMahon said of one fellow player. “He’s got a lot of history, but he’s got no memory”), and do something they love while they still can.

“Come out,” Demers urged other 50 and olders who enjoy playing hockey. “It’s a great opportunity.”