John “Zeke” Zimmerman feels fortunate just being able to play hockey at his age, 68, and he was skating at least once a week with friends before the coronavirus pandemic shut down rinks across North America.
But he and another local player, Ross “Mac” Gregory, went beyond just playing in February. Skating with a team out of Port Huron, Michigan, the Ironworkers, they helped capture the gold medal at the Michigan Senior Olympics.
“We're 65 or 70 years old and we're out there playing hockey, first of all, so that's just kind of unbelievable. Some of the guys we know can't even walk at this age,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman began playing with the Ironworkers in 2012, after meeting some of them at a tournament in Lansing, Michigan, and they won a national championship in Florida that year.
“It's just a camaraderie thing,” Zimmerman said. “We get together. It takes you an hour to play the game and it takes 3 hours to talk about it afterward in the parking lot.”
Zimmerman, Gregory and another local player, Steve Cameron, play with the Ironworkers about six times a year in tournaments. A death in the family prevented Cameron from participating in the Michigan Senior Olympics in Troy, Michigan, where the team won the 60-69 division.
“It's really competitive. But if anybody videotapes it, you've got to tell them to take it off the slow-motion settings sometimes,” Zimmerman said with a laugh.
“When you get going, everybody's in the same boat and pretty equal. But it's pretty amazing how good some of these guys remain to be over the years. Especially when you go to towns in Michigan like Traverse City or Houghton, which is an unbelievable hockey town. There's probably 90 guys up there our age that are playing.”
Of course, Fort Wayne is a storied hockey town, too, and the Tuesday night group in which Zimmerman skates has former Komets players such as Carey Lucyk and Ian Boyce.
Finding 60-and-over players to travel from Fort Wayne for tournaments isn't easy, though, even if those tournaments are so much fun.
“It's the same intensity as when you're a kid playing travel hockey. It really is. It's just an absolute hoot,” said Gregory, 62.
“Everybody is trying very, very hard. It's kind of strange to say this, but the temperament of the players changes from the 50-59 bracket to the 60-69 bracket. There's very little cheap stuff going on and that might be still going on in the 50-59. But the 60-69 is still intense.”
When the Ironworkers played in Troy, there were former junior, college and even an NHL player on the ice. The Ironworkers played six games over three days, went 5-1 and beat a team from Troy, the Prowlers, in the championship game.
“I skate 70 to 80 times a year and I could barely walk Sunday. It was bad,” Gregory said. “You think you're in good shape. But you know, playing hockey, your legs can be in good shape (and) the rest of you is not. It's all about getting that stride going.”
Zimmerman and Gregory have played hockey since they were kids, though both took several years off from the game before getting their legs going again.
“What makes it so much fun (now) is you're playing against guys your same age. That's what makes it a blast. Everybody is equal,” Gregory said. “All the games are pretty competitive and there really aren't any blowouts.”
Games are followed by beverages – including a good amount of beer – and conversations with opponents from around North America. Of course, there's a lot of laughter, like talking about the opposing goaltender in February who wore a Superman uniform and played like a superhero.
“It's just a real good atmosphere,” Zimmerman said. “You get to know all the guys you've been playing with and against. You find out you maybe played against each other when you were 14, if you can remember that far back. It gets pretty competitive, but once it's over, everybody's a friend.
“You're with your friends, and they all become friends, and you realize how lucky you are to be in a group doing what you're doing.”
The joy overwhelms any aches and pains that come with skating in your 60s.
“The atmosphere at tournaments is this: Buy stock in Advil and any analgesics you can rub on your body,” Zimmerman joked.