Level Up Your Fitness: Skating Into Old Age
For more than 60 years, hockey has been a balm for Zoomer contributor Jay Teitel’s body and soul, but pandemic shinny brought it all home. Photo: Robert Burley
In September 2019, my wife and children threw me a surprise hockey-themed 70th birthday party at the Vaughan Iceplex, one of the oldest multiple-rink complexes in the Greater Toronto Area. I thought I was just going to a little warm-weather pickup game with some friends, but while I was changing into my skates in the dressing room, people I knew – friends and family both – kept wandering in to join us. I was astonished that they had all decided to go skating on the same Sunday, at the same arena, as our little group. It took me 10 minutes to realize it was no coincidence, but the best party I’d ever been to in my life.
Six months later, on March 13, 2020, the regular pickup hockey game I’d played three times a week for 20 years at Moss Park arena in downtown Toronto was shut down, suddenly, because of something called COVID-19. For the 18 players in the room, five of them older than 70, it seemed like the worst piece of news we could hear that year.
For most people, hockey is the opposite of an obvious “carry-over” sport, one that you can play when you’re young and continue to play in later life. Everyone knows hockey is too violent, too strenuous and too hard on joints and spines to be sustainable with age. Except it’s not. Non-contact hockey, played with helmets and full face guards, by sensible men and women, is far less percussive than tennis and jogging and, in my experience, probably no more harmful to joints and backs than golf or biking. (I have two artificial hips, and I haven’t run a step for more than 20 years.)
As far as being too strenuous goes, hockey actually fits the parameters of the latest innovation in cardiac fitness for young people and old alike, High Intensity Interval Training. HIIT involves short bursts of intense activity, followed by short periods of rest. As does hockey. In 2020, a group of Norwegian researchers released the results of the Generation 100 study, an examination of a group of people aged 70 to 77 who had taken part in an HIIT regimen twice a week for five years. They found members of the HIIT group were physically and mentally healthier than control groups who had followed either moderate-intensity training regimens (50 minutes, twice a week) or national Norwegian guidelines for physical exercise (30 minutes of moderate-level activity a day). In practical terms, the HIIT group had lower blood pressure, greater aerobic fitness levels, increased mental acuity, and lower risk level of “all causes” mortality. Dr. Steven Matlis, a sports medicine specialist who runs a clinic in north Toronto where he treats a number of seniors, says this about HIIT, hockey and older players. “Most of the seniors I see are doing the traditional physical activities for their age group – walking, jogging, possibly tennis – not hockey. But as long as it’s something you’ve been doing consistently for a long time, with no large breaks, and as long as you get your cardiovascular condition checked regularly, it should be all right for you.”
Matlis does add one more caveat; he cautions older shinny players not to play on very cold days. “Cold temperatures can create bronchial spasms. That’s what we see with many of the people who have heart attacks when they’re doing strenuous activities in the cold, like shovelling snow.” So, if you avoid frigid shinny, and hockey meets the prescribed definition of a carry-over sport for you, it can be the best carry-over sport around. It’s definitely the most fun.
The secret is locomotion. Most other land sports mandate that players move by running; hockey lets you skate. And compared to running, skating is smoother, faster and infinitely cooler. Anyone who’s ever skated regularly knows this. Older people who skate regularly know something else, that the act of gliding on ice helps them not just to survive but thrive. At a recent Spokane Hoopfest, billed as the largest basketball tournament on Earth, more than 20,000 players participated. Of these, there were exactly five aged 70 or older. At the 2022 Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament in Santa Rosa, Calif., there will be 200 players over the age of 70 (with 60 over 75). The difference? Skating.
It was skating we probably missed the most when the mass shutdown happened in March 2020. And skating we managed to get back to first, the following November, outdoors only, on Toronto’s network of open-air, artificial, neighbourhood rinks. No hockey was allowed, and masks were mandatory, but still a small core of players from our game showed up regularly to skate laps, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always with accompanying conversation. It felt like a conflation of playing hockey and talking in the dressing room at the same time, and it was a reminder of the other natural great benefit of pickup games, something critical for older people in general – having a group to belong to. Unsurprisingly, half of our skating contingent was made up of older players.
We did make it indoors at the end of August that year, a tantalizing tease, cut short by the arrival of the Omicron variant. When the weather turned and we headed to the outdoor rinks again, surgical masks were off, and hockey was permitted. Shinny, to be exact, two or three or four to a side, nets but no goalies – to “score” you had to hit the post – and with a different group of players filling out each game. There were men and women, boys and girls, high school and college kids, parents with children. My daughter came out to play with us several times, along with her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who sat on the bench with her other mother and laughed hysterically whenever any of us skated by. I don’t know what she found so funny; I was too busy being exhausted. It was an amazing workout, freewheeling and sporadically intense; you skated hard when you felt like it, then rested by loafing on the ice or leaning against the boards. There were huge amounts of open ice, and time to handle the puck with a freedom you didn’t have in an ordinary pickup game, where people sometimes actually played defence.
It was, that is, exactly like the hockey we played as kids. Day or night, half the time on natural rinks with square plywood boards, where the corners collected snow and buried pucks. When you’d had enough, you sat on a bench beside your friends and changed into your boots. The rinks we were playing on now were like the rinks in the neighbourhood parks we had walked to, sometimes with our skates already on, and sometimes not walking at all. When I was nine, a freak overnight ice storm hit the GTA, glazing the roads and sidewalks in our suburb as flawlessly as a midnight Zamboni. The next day we skated to the rink. Somehow the COVID shinny we were playing reminded me of that day.
It wasn’t until the first week of March, almost two years to the day since our games were shut down, that we got back to Moss Park to play, permanently, inside again. It felt good, of course. It also felt, in that paranoid pandemic way, too good to be true.
It’s the hockey we played outdoors last winter that will stay with me most, a gift delivered in the least likely of times. People will tell you the worst thing about COVID was the way it suspended time, that it paralyzed life into numbness. But during the challenging winter of 2021, shinny hockey transported one 72-year-old and a group of aging cronies to a sweeter time. It was like going home.
A version this article appeared in the December 2022/January 2023 issue with the headline ‘Skating Into Old Age’, p. 62.