Date: February 1st, 2004
Bill Wellington has some pretty high praise for the doctor who performed his double hip replacement surgery, Dr. Patrick Caulfield of Bethesda, Maryland.
"They saved my hockey life," he said. Hockey may not be the first priority for many hip replacement patients, but it's pretty important to this 82-year-old founder of Maryland's first senior hockey team, the Geri-Hatricks.
Wellington has been an avid hockey player since his days of playing what he calls "old-fashioned, no-frills" hockey on frozen ponds as a teenager in Detroit. He continues to play several times a week.
The Geri-Hatricks team isn't Wellington's first stab at forming a league. When he coached his sons' hockey teams, he formed a league with other coaches in the area. He formed the Capital Hockey League in the 1970s. He is also a strong supporter of women's hockey.
Keeping up with the Kids
He first saw the need for a senior team when he reached his 60s and found it a little more difficult to keep up with the younger guys. He started calling around and found a real interest among older athletes happy to find a place where they could stay fit and not "embarrass themselves."
The Geri-Hatricks accept players 50 and older and now comprise about 30 players. They divide themselves into age groups by decade to scrimmage. They also play other area teams and many belong to other leagues as well. In 2000, the Geri-Hatricks brought home the first gold medal in hockey from the National Senior Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. They continue to compete in the Games every year, also winning a bronze and a silver.
The senior team is a boon for older people in the area who are trying to stay active and have a little fun at the same time, says John Buchleitner, 67, facilitator for the Geri-Hatricks. Many team members had played hockey for years and tried to continue to play on other adult leagues, but had trouble competing with the younger crowd.
"When you get in your 60s," Buchleitner said, "it becomes harder to keep up your speed. In your early 60s, you think you've still got it, but you get to 65 or 66 and you do slow down a little bit."
Developing a senior program gave them a place where they could still compete, but could take a little more care. While there's no way to avoid contact altogether (Buchleitner especially enjoys "pinching" opposing players against the wall), the Geri-Hatricks play a non-contact form of the game to keep injury rates down.
"Now we have a place where people can play without being overly competitive. You play so you can come back and play next week. Part of my job is to make sure no one gets overly enthusiastic about the hitting," he said.
Wellington agreed that the rules prohibit checking and said players never go out with intent to take someone down, but concedes that separated shoulders and broken bones are still an occasional part of the game.
Despite its rough reputation, hockey can be a great sport for older people, especially those who already have the skills. Skating is easier on the joints than jogging, and the skill and coordination it requires gives players both a physical and mental challenge.
Top of the Morning to Ya!
Wellington starts off his day by getting up at 5 a.m. and playing hockey from 7 to 8:30. "It gives me motivation," he said. "If you just abdicate your interests, I think all the other parts of your body and mind decline. When you're playing with younger people, with the banter and exchange of ideas, you have to be more alert."
This may be a hockey team with more "banter" than most. Wellington refers to the team as "a bunch of old guys," and claims he recruited senior players by calling cemeteries and nursing homes. But don't let the "old guy" humor fool you. Wellington and Buchleitner both work out when they're not on the ice, and Buchleitner and his wife regularly bike together.
A father of six, World War II veteran, and former economist, Wellington studied at Catholic University of America and considered the priesthood for a while before he decided that he "loved girls and big band music too much to be a man of the cloth."
His love of girls is reserved for his wife these days, but he still manages to inflict his love of big band on his teammates by blaring his records during practice.