Friday nights are a busy time on the ice at the Cleveland Heights rec center. But after youth hockey practices and recreational ice skaters have packed up and left, the real competition begins with the Cleveland Heights 50-and-over hockey league.
If you think a group of 50, 60 and even 70-year-olds are slow on the ice, you’re wrong. It just may take them a little longer to get their skates, pads and gloves on.
"You can see I'm the first one in here," Gordon Blimbaum says as he walks into the locker room. "It takes me a little longer. It takes me a good 30 minutes to get this gear on. Some of the guys can do it in 20 or 15."
Blimbaum is tall and broad with salt and pepper hair. He owns a heating and cooling business, but has loved hockey his entire life and even played some in college.
"I retired from the 22-and-over league after 25 years,” Blimbaum said. “Then I went up to the 50-and-over just because it better suited me. They don’t seem to let up. So there comes a time when you gotta act your age."
Blimbaum, who is in his 60s, plays center for the Blues, one of four teams in this league along with the Lightning, the Leafs and the Rangers.
As he finishes suiting up, other members of the Blues start to trickle into the locker room, including the team captain, Ed Weston.
"When I sit in the locker room and look around, I see an ICU nurse; I see a pharmacist; I see a surgeon; I see a mathematician; I see an accountant,” Weston says. “It’s a cool group of people, and we skate.”
Hitting The Ice
Heading out of the locker room to face the Rangers on the ice, the Blues don’t look like they are at retirement age. Many are nimble skating backwards and forwards, honing their puck skills. They're warming up for a run at their version of the NHL's Stanley Cup.
"It’s called the Warshawsky cup," says Commisioner John Sullivan. "It’s named after Bob Warshawsky, who founded the league. And given our age, we’ve named it the 'Gerry Jug' as in ‘geriatric.’"
Just as I get a seat on the Blues bench, it’s game time. The puck hits the ice with a whistle and the action starts to move.
Technically, not every player is over 50. There is a group of goalies, some in their late 30s, who rotate through the league every week.
There’s also a cast of younger women on each team, like Alicia Leonard, who scores the first goal of the game, putting the Blues up 1-0 in the first period.
"Well, I learn a lot from them that’s for sure. They teach me a lot about the game. But mostly they’re like a bunch of big brothers," Leonard says during in her brief time on the bench.
By the end of the first period, it’s all tied up, 1-1. Blimbaum and the rest of the Blues are skating hard against the Rangers.
"This is a tough battle tonight. These guys got some good skaters. It’s going to be interesting," Blimbaum says with heavy breaths.
The action bleeds into the second period with several shots on goal, while players sub in and out on the fly. By the start of the third period, the Blues have built a 3-1 lead, but Weston tells his team not to get too comfortable.
"We gotta win the third guys; we gotta win the third period,” Weston says. “We gotta outscore them in the 3rd period. If we do that, we win."
When The Buzzer Sounds
In the final period, you can see fatigue set in on both sides. Players are skating in shorter shifts to try to keep their legs fresh.
The Rangers seem to find the right mix of players on the ice and tie it up 3-3 with just moments to go. As time ticks away, the Blues just miss a few shots of their own, leaving the game tied up.
In this league, there is no overtime in the regular season – a tie is just a tie.
"It’s a fun game. This is why we play. We wanted to win tonight,” Weston said. “These guys made a good comeback. A couple of goals could have gone either way, deflections. But that’s the game. It was fun.”
With that, the Blues skate across the ice towards the locker room. Tonight they'll join opponents and teammates alike for a few beers – this league is about more than just hockey.
"You know, we go to each other’s parents' funerals. We're there for each other throughout the whole year,” Blimbaum says. “Some of our fellow players are having surgeries and whatnot. We tend to show up, you know? We develop quite the camaraderie with the guys.”