The Copper Country Oldtimers League doesn’t discriminate over age. A person can be 30 years old or 60 — it doesn’t matter, as long as they love to play hockey.
The beer league in Houghton and Hancock, Mich., boasts some pretty good hockey. The guys who play on the six teams have fun and enjoy one another’s company. It’s a strong bond.
“The collective group of us grew up in the Houghton/Hancock area and just played on the ponds, all of us,” Phil Raffaelli said. “A lot of the guys played in high school and elsewhere.”
Raffaelli plays for M&M Powersports, while Ryan DeForge competes for the Monte Carlo team.
“Houghton/Hancock is a small area,” DeForge said. “I actually coached one of the kids on our team in junior hockey, so we are just friends. We play together all winter long, it’s just natural to team up.”
The guys are rivals on the ice every time they skate except for the three days they are competing in the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships in early February.
For the second straight year, the Copper Country Oldtimers League had four teams travel 100 miles to Eagle River, Wis., to play the annual tournament. This year, a local bank, River Valley Bank, sponsored the teams to help make the journey more affordable.
“Our team in the 50-and-older [division] has been coming for five or six years and they kept telling us how much fun it is,” DeForge said. “One day, I just started thinking about getting a team together and called some guys that have been to some other pond hockey tournaments.”
In 2013, the Copper Country Oldtimers League went home victorious.
“We pulled off a clean sweep,” Raffaelli said. “We played the 30 Silver, 40+, 50+ and 60+, and won all four divisions.”
“We had a great picture last year by USA Hockey with all four teams with our trophies,” DeForge said. “Not too many areas can say that.”
Not bad for a bunch of guys who love to play hockey in the frozen tundra of uppermost reaches of the Upper Peninsula.
“We’re pretty competitive in the Houghton/Hancock area,” DeForge said. “We’re coming for fun, but we’re also coming to win it.”
Raffaelli and DeForge have teamed up the last two years to play for the River Valley Oldtimers in the Silver 30+ Division. Last year the Oldtimers, who have an average age of 35, won the 16-team division. This year, the Oldtimers repeated as champions. The team is now 12-0 in the Pond Hockey Championships.
The other three Copper Country Oldtimers League teams also fared well this season: in the 40+ Tier 1 Division, the River Valley Sharks placed runner-up; the River Valley Pioneers also finished second in the 50+ Tier 1 Division; and the River Valley Monte Carlo won the 60+ Tier 1 Division.
The guys in the 60+ Division have quite the storied past on the ice.
“They’ve been playing together since they were in their 20s, so we’re kind of the next generation coming up,” Raffaelli said. “We’re hoping to keep the Copper Country Oldtimers League going.”
The Pond Hockey Championships is the only outdoor tournament Raffaelli and DeForge play in during the year. Every March, the Copper Country Oldtimers host a tournament that draws around 32 to 40 teams in six divisions from Michigan and Wisconsin. This year marks the 31st year of the tournament.
There is always solid competition in the Oldtimers’ tournament. However, nothing compares to playing in the Pond Hockey Championships.
“If it wasn’t with these guys, I wouldn’t come play,” Raffaelli said. “If you’re not playing with your friends, why play?”
In some cases, it is 30 years of friendship bonded on the ice.
“Everyone gets along and has a good time,” DeForge said. “The way we play hockey, it’s unselfish hockey. We’re just all friends and it’s great.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
If you think you’re in pretty good shape – or even if you know you’re not – it’s possible to step into, say, a touch football game or a casual softball game without completely embarrassing yourself or winding up on the couch for a week with myriad pulled muscles.
But if you want an honest assessment of your current fitness level, try jumping into a hockey game. You will get a splash of cold water – or better yet, ice shavings – on your face.
While it’s true that many adult hockey league players are perhaps primarily motivated by the camaraderie and enjoyment of the sport, the fitness benefit cannot be overlooked, says Kevin Universal, a member of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey Council and the president of the Carolina Amateur Hockey Association.
Once you start, you don’t want to stop. But once you stop, you’ll feel it once you start again.
The beauty of hockey
A shift in hockey combines the controlled dash of a 400-meter race with the urgency of an even shorter race.
“There are perishable skills – the combination of having the short, sprinter-type lung capacity, then getting back for a quick rest and sprint up the ice over and over,” Universal said. “That’s challenging for a lot of people."
That’s why it’s important to keep playing, even if it’s just once a week. If you fall out of that routine, you will feel it.
“I think we have at least a handful of guys on my team who travel a lot and don’t have time to work out except for hockey,” Universal said. “That’s their one or two days of exercise a week, and it’s so beneficial. Aside from just hanging out and having fun, joking around with the guys, they’ll use that as a primary means of exercise.”
Other workouts don’t measure up
Unless you like to race the person next to you on the treadmill or try to beat yesterday’s distance on the bike or elliptical, there isn’t much true competition in gym exercises. That doesn’t mean you aren’t working, but you aren’t working the same way you are when you truly compete.
“Being a part of the game and having something on the line, it makes you dig a little deeper and makes you get into it more and get more benefit,” Universal said. “When you’re not doing that and just out recreationally exercising and trying to burn calories, you don’t get the benefit. I have friends that run or lift weights, but if they aren’t getting that type of hockey workout consistently, they feel it after games and you see it in their play.”
Universal notes a recent example to emphasize his point: a guy who had played on one of his teams a decade ago before moving away has just returned and started back in hockey a few weeks ago.
“He had regularly exercised at the gym, but he was so gassed the first four or five games,” Universal added. “He’s finally getting his legs back. It’s funny. He regularly works out, lifts weights competitively. It’s not the same when you have to go out and sprint.”
Never too late to start
That said, don’t let the conditioning learning curve associated with hockey be a deterrent. If you used to play and are trying to get back into it, it’s never too late. Same goes for adults who have never played before.
Universal falls into that latter category. He says he grew up playing street hockey, but he never played in an organized league on the ice until he was 34. He picked it up after his kids took up the sport and he “got the itch” when some other newbies convinced him to try a beginners camp.
“I regularly run into people as adults and I encourage them to pick up the game,” Universal said. “You don’t have to have grown up with it. You just have to have the desire, and you can have some fun out there and get fit.”
Now 48, Universal can’t imagine life without the sport in so many ways – with fitness being primary among them.
“I feel the difference. I feel the lung capacity and I’m able to work harder in other areas,” Universal said. “This past weekend I did a hike with a 1,700-foot elevation drop over 1.3 miles. That’s like doing 170 flights of stairs. My legs aren’t sore, and I attribute that so much to skating. I’ve tried lacrosse, football, track, swimming, baseball, and this is definitely by far the most beneficial workout.”