There is nothing extraordinary in Canada about playing hockey in your fifties and sixties. It is a cultural phenomenon. Most of us played the game during our youth and some never stopped. During winter week-ends, I now play on a refrigerated outside rink sponsored by the Montreal Canadiens with a dozen of players in that age group. So, this is not a story about an old timer turning hockey star, or about his prowess on the ice. It is rather the humble account of a player falling in love with the game for a second time, but for very different reasons. As counterintuitive as this may sound, it is the depiction of the pursuit of hockey later in life. How it became a revelation as a very effective way of gaining back energy levels not felt for decades. Such endeavor comes with its challenges, training requirements and imposed discipline. But with those, also come physical, cerebral and psychological benefits. For those of you thinking that advancing in age is putting the game of hockey out of your reach, maybe the following will make you think twice.
A matter of intensity
We have all heard the clichés: ``Fifty is the new Forty’’, `` The Longevity Boom``, ``the Anti-Aging Revolution’’ and many others clamoring toward eternal youth. The statistics are quite clear. With all the medical advances, baby boomers have the potential to live longer than any other generation before. However, there is a caveat. Studies also show (1) that while boomers are living longer than their parents, they are doing so with a lower quality of life. The question then becomes; if boomers are going to live longer, can they also aspire to a longer period of higher intensity activities like those practiced in our 20`s and 30`s? This is the question that now, in my late fifties, I have been trying to answer for a few years.
Youth hormones auto generation
For those that are not familiar with the notion, hockey is an anaerobic sport in which, the physical effort is done without a regular inflow of oxygen. An aerobic sport like jogging on the contrary, is conducted with a regular intake of oxygen. Because of this particularity, when you play hockey, you are spending energy in a pattern very close to high intensity interval training (HITT). Therefore, enjoying the benefits of such activity such as the generation of youth hormones. (2)
The Sertich Story: Hockey at 95
If there is one event that really motivated me to return to a high intensity sport at 56, it was the discovery of the Mark Sertich story (3). Now at 95, this Minnesotan is considered the oldest hockey player on the planet. He started playing hockey 85 years ago and doing marathons at the ripe age of 59. In his view, ``the human body is adaptive enough to respond to many daily physical requirements. But if you don’t challenge it, you don’t stimulate the need for effort adaptation``.
The other interesting observation about the Sertich story, is the particularity of the sport that Mark practices compared to others like football and soccer. Those require a lot of quick bursts of running with constant pounding on the articulations. Hockey differs on two major fronts. First you need to develop a different set of reflexes to learn how to skate. The second part has to do with energy absorption. Hockey requires bursts of energy as well, but the shock absorption is done through a gliding movement on the ice. Simple physics tells us that the more time a quantity of movement takes to be absorbed, the less impact the free body will feel. I am pretty sure there are no 90 years old football or soccer players out there. But if I was going to make a prediction, I believe that we will see quite a few more hockey players in that age group over the next decades, the undersigned hoping to be one of them.
18 months into the training, I can move the puck up without dropping it…almost.
For those interested in understanding the more technical aspects of the human body evolution in sports later in life, I refer you to the book ``Late to Ball`` by Gerald Marzorati. (4) This is a fascinating story on the challenges of undertaking competitive tennis at 54. The book is filled with scientific observations about the physical and neurological transformations we undergo through aging and how those can be leveraged or dealt with in the pursuit of a high intensity sport.
23 years in the making
In my case, the journey starts back a couple of decades ago when, after playing the game for 24 years (since I was 9 years old) and following a torn knee ligament injury, I decided to hang my skates. Back in the 90`s, getting access to regular and decent hour ice time was only for
the lucky few. Along with increasing business and family obligations, the thought of going back, despite the rehabilitation of my knee, never crossed my mind. 23 years would pass, sprinkled with a few bouts of gym training, jogging routines and biking to work. But all in all, no physical activities akin to the intensity level required to play hockey. In the spring of 2015, after a few months of discomfort with my knee, I decided to get a magnetic resonance test and met with a knee specialist. The diagnostic and doctor`s recommendations seemed bleak at the time. My knee could no longer tolerate impact exercises such as jogging and tennis. However low-impact ones such as walking, biking, swimming and, what do you know, ``skating``, were allowed. It was hard at the time to fathom the idea that I could possibly go back to the game of my youth. Hockey players are indeed very prone to knee injuries, but with technological advances with sport braces, maybe most of those risks could be alleviated.
I did not realize it at the time and for quite some time to come. But those 20 minutes with the knee doctor are undeniably the moment that changed the rest of my life as far as sport activities and I would even say, lifestyle, are concerned.
I read once that dreams are metaphoric expressions of our daily emotions. I am not entirely sure I could give an exact clinical explanation of what this means. But what I do know is that for these last two decades, I had been dreaming, I would say fairly regularly, of always getting ready to play my next hockey game. But then something would always stop me at the last minute from doing so. I would dream about been hung up in traffic and getting to the arena too late. Or I would get there on time to realize I had forgotten to put my skates back in my hockey bag, and on and on. After a while, I started to realize that maybe those dreams are my subconscious expressing it’s longing for a new spark in life. As it turns out, reigniting and old passion, but in a totally new era and set of circumstances, would provide the opportunity
For a few more days, the thoughts kept haunting me. And then, all the rational objections would follow. Was my heart good enough to sustain the efforts of training for this? Could I protect my knee enough to prevent other injuries? Then how much conditioning would I need? As they say, you get in shape to play hockey, not the other way around. And there was the issue about
time. In my line of Engineering work, we support 25 manufacturing plants scattered in Canada and New England. Travel is a good part of it. Also, my wife and I own a small cottage in the eastern township that we truly enjoy during summer week-ends. But still it means two residences to maintain (it`s a good thing my charming wife has some handyman skills of her own such as drywalling and plumbing). If I was going to undertake this, even at a level where I just played shimmy or pick-up, I would need a serious time commitment to prepare and ensure I would not get hurt on my first game.
Being a structured individual or maybe out of professional deformation, I decided to tackle this as an engineering project. One step at the time, and proceeding by elimination until something would really stop me.
a) Checking the heart
My first challenge was to get an Electro cardiogram. I don’t want to scare any one with this, but this is not a matter to be taken lightly. We have all heard stories about people getting heart attacks going back to sport after years on inactivity. Unless you never stopped playing, it is well advised to have your heart checked before you return. After a few days of stationary biking I headed to the clinic for my ECG. This is the test where they glue all kinds of sensors on your skin, then have you run on an inclined mill. Every 2 minutes they ask you if you are ok, and if you say yes, they increase the inclination by a few more degrees. I was able to last 13 minutes and scored 181 as my maximum heart rate. It is supposed to represent your 100% or your maximum heart rate. When you do other types of training (as I strongly suggest before you go back to hockey), if the requirement is that you go at 80% max, you know that you should go up to 145 pulsations a minute if you scored the same max heart rate that I did. Another important point, is to mention to the doctor supervising the test, that you intend to return playing hockey after a long time. If there are any anomaly with your heart condition, now is the time to find out and discuss it. Finally as a last cautionary note, it is also advised to stay in-tune with how you feel on the ice. It only occurred to me once in 3 years, but after being on the ice for 10 minutes, I started feeling some discomfort in the chest. I did not hesitate to gather my puck and leave. As
it turns out, it was pectoral muscular pain (from too much snow shoveling the previous day) but still, I am glad I did not take the chance.
b) Protective gear
When you have been away from hockey for two decades, your body and reflex conditioning are totally unrecognizable from the time you played. Thankfully nowadays, there is ice time offered 12 months of the year by some arenas called ``Baton Rondelle’’ (Stick and Puck sessions). For 7 dollars, you can get on the ice with your stick and puck for 1h10 minutes. The number of people allowed on the ice is limited to 30. For someone learning back how to skate, this provides plenty opportunities to get reacquainted with the proper set of reflexes.
Month 22: Now I don’t drop it anymore.
A little bit of warning though; hockey kids nowadays are a completely different breed of athletes than we were at that age. Many have skating and puck handling skills that would have made them NHL prospects back in our days. This means there might be a lot of fast moving parts when you get on the ice. Therefore, the need to have proper protective gears in case of a collision or a fall. Unless I am skating alone, I personally never get on the ice without knee membranes, knee pads, elbow pads, gloves and visor-helmet. And recently, I have added a rib cage shield. When I play a regulated game, then I will wear the full equipment including shoulder pads, pants and jack strap.
Training for my first shinny
As it turns out, before I felt I was able to play any sort of shinny game, I had been training for 7 months. A
combination of 1-hour gym or on-ice training (at the tune of 3 times a week). During those months spent on the ice, 80% of my time would be only for skating and 20% for stick handling. Practicing shooting the puck, like most kids are obsessed with nowadays, would come much later. So, in my 8th month into the adventure, I decided to join in a 4 on 4 scrimmage (without replacement) at the arena where I play in the morning from 7 to 8. After 20 minutes of non-stop skating, I had to quit if I did not want to throw up on the ice. I proceeded to have a shower and go to work while an acute pain was felt in my teeth, neck and shoulders for another hour. During lunch time that day, I met with my pharmacist and explained what had just happened that morning. She explained that my immune system had just been jolted with a strong shock, probably the worst in 25 years. Thankfully, she was able to recommend a Zync supplement reinforced with vitamin C, D and Echinacea. I had never been a big believer in food supplement, but this time I did not argue. I have now been taking this Zync supplement ever since every time I get on the ice. The pain episodes came back a couple times more, but with much less intensity and finally disappeared altogether. I will talk in another chapter about food and supplement management. But let`s just say for the moment that putting a strong physical requirement on an older body requires some additional vitamin compensation and this Zync concoction has been my go-to supplement for a couple of years. Interesting to note also on this, since that episode, I have not had more than one cold a year and those lasted no more than 4 days.
Harder than before
As you get older, you muscle mass decreases, but this is something you can compensate in the gym fairly easily if you are disciplined. One aspect that for me is probably the most difficult to improve is the cardio recuperation. We mentioned before the notion of hockey being an anaerobic sport. With the type of hockey that we play in beer leagues, there are usually only 2 lines for change-ups. Anaerobic fitness means that you are able to get on the ice at 60-80 % of your max rate for a minute, get off on a shift change, then go back at it another minute later. In the NHL the average shift is 40 seconds but probably at 80-90% their max rate. This is why they have 4 lines per team. The ability to recuperate cardio rapidly is probably the toughest thing to master and stabilize as you get older. I am still trying to figure this one out, but
there is a huge difference in my cardio comfort on the ice if the last time I played was 2 days ago versus a week ago. Being on the ice every 48 hours would be the ultimate goal but this is not always possible. Sometimes at work you have to travel for weeks at the time and you can easily span a week before ice time sessions. In my experience, unless I compensate in the gym with some interval training during my travel, I see quite a difference. For me, this is the toughest part of going back to the game and the one that needs the most regularity in training and discipline with the food (more on food management later).
Better than before
I have now been training either being on the ice or in the gym, one hour at the time, on average 2-3 times a week for almost 2 years nonstop. It is without question that my conditioning has improved, and I would even say that some of my game aspects are better than they have ever been. For one, I have always been a decent skater but one of my weaknesses had always been a lack of fluidity when accelerating on a right turn. Being left handed, turning left has always been much easier since you can lean on your stick for stability and when you are actually turning, it is easier to handle the puck. This is one aspect that I have really been focusing on during my skating sessions. I would say that my right turns now, are 70% as fluid as my left turn. Another aspect that I find is also getting better and perhaps this one has more to do with the brain maturing process than actual training. As we get older, our brain makes more connections and apparently, we develop better nuance and perspective. This may explain the much better hockey IQ than I used to have. In my youth, I was a strong skater, so my game was very much north-south. Now it is a lot more east-west with a much-improved passing ability.
Motivational aspects- new energies
Despite all the trials and tribulations of the project, there is still the huge benefits of new energy levels either it be physical, cerebral or psychological. Just going up one flight of stairs at the office prior to returning to hockey had me panting for 20 seconds. Now I can tackle those, two at the time, all I need is a deep breath when I reach the top and I can`t tell the difference.
Food and supplement management
Refresher Training lessons
The discipline triangle
Eat, sleep and exercise.
The organizational challenge
An older game in a new era
Changes in techniques and technologies
Gauging results and progression
(1) Baby boomers lower quality of life than their parents
(2) Interval training to reverse the aging process
(3) Playing hockey at 95, the Sertich Story
(4) Picking up tennis at 54,
‘’Late to the Ball’’, by Gerald Marzorati
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