Marsh Webster was the first to arrive. He entered the locker room at the Skaneateles, New York, YMCA at 8:15 a.m., carrying his hockey equipment in an Army duffel bag, his Warrior stick laced through the straps, his skates dangling from the end of the stick.
"At my age, I need a little extra time to get ready," the center said, smiling.
In three days, Marsh would turn 95.
It's the rest of us who need to catch our breath. When Marsh was born on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1923, in nearby Syracuse, the National Hockey League was only 5 years old and totally Canadian. When he first skated on the ice near his house, a hockey stick cost $1.50 and the Zamboni was 60 years away from reality.
As he slipped on a "CHIEFS" jersey that looked just like the one Paul Newman wore in "Slap Shot," memory served up the date of that cult classic: 1977, 41 years ago. Yet the jersey looked as good on Marsh as it did on Newman, who was a mere 52 at the time of release.
The second player to arrive for the Thursday morning scrimmage was defenseman Dave Van Slyke. "He needs a little extra time, too," Marsh said. That's because Van Slyke, 71, plays with prosthetic arms to replace the originals he lost years ago when he was electrocuted while working above the street for the utility company.
Asked if he was any relation to Andy Van Slyke, the former major league outfielder from upstate New Hartford, Dave said, "He's a distant cousin, but I never met him. I played ball, too -- it runs in the family. My dad tried out as a catcher with the Yankees in 1932."
"Tough to beat out Bill Dickey," Marsh said.
They were soon joined, one by one, by a cheerfully robust cast of characters: 87-year-old retired banker John Anagnost, 75-year-old former Syracuse Blazers right wing and bar owner Brian Elwell, 69-year-old retired engineer Steve Phelps, 62-year-old TV weatherman Wayne Mahar, who's one of the goalies.
The other netminder was getting ready in a nearby locker room. That would be Debbie Gardiner, a 59-year-old hospital lab technician, attorney and mother of seven.
Meet the Gray Wolves, an over-, sometimes way-over-50 hockey club that has found a frozen fountain of youth. The members, who represent Central New York in more ways than one, scrimmage twice a week out of Allyn Ice Arena in this Finger Lakes town and play in tournaments against other senior teams from across the country. On any given Tuesday or Thursday morning, you'll see lawyers, teachers, civil servants, a commercial airplane pilot, an orthopedic surgeon, a pastor who swears like a sailor, a restaurant owner, and -- just in case anyone tells too tall a tale -- a man who administers lie detector tests.
"I love these guys," says Elwell, who scored 37 goals for the 1969-70 Syracuse Blazers of the Eastern Hockey League, the same league that inspired "Slap Shot." "They play with as much heart as the pros, maybe even more. I thought I'd never play again, but here I am on my artificial knees, having the time of my life."
Back when the Gray Wolves were first organized in 1998, senior hockey was in its infancy. Then they got an early wrist shot of publicity from an article in the December 21, 2000, Syracuse Herald-Journal, written by Bob Siuda and headlined, "Ice Age Revisited." In the piece, Siuda describes the locker room scene at the practice rink, which was then in Lysander, and quoted one player kidding Marsh about his age, which was then just 77: "His Social Security number is 1."
Since then, senior hockey has grown and grown. There are now tournaments all over the country, like the one hosted by the Gray Wolves every spring. In last year's, their 18th annual, they hosted seven different organizations in three age categories (50-plus, 60-plus, 70-plus), including the brilliantly named Geri-Hattricks from Landover, Maryland.
But it's less about the competition and more about the camaraderie. There's no bodychecking, no slap shots, just a vague idea of what the score is. "I remember the first time I played with the Gray Wolves," says Anagnost, who joined the team at the turn of this century. "I got a little rough with Marsh in the corner, and he politely told me, 'We don't play like that here.'"
All in all, 30 players showed up for this Thursday scrimmage. There was a wide range of skill levels, as well as ages, but they made it work as they took their shifts without hogging the puck or ice time. Watching them was 82-year-old Alastair Wickens, who had to hang up his Gray Wolves jersey for medical reasons. When a visitor commented on a no-look pass Marsh had made, Wickens said, "Oh, you should have seen him when he was 80. He could fly. The other team needed two guys to cover him."
Marsh leaves the bragging to other people. "He is reticent to talk about himself," says Tom Webster, 71 and the oldest of his six children. "But he's pretty amazing. Still has that hockey sense. He's a widower, but he still has the family over for spaghetti dinner on Tuesday nights. I worry about him driving in the snow, but he's lived upstate his whole life. He's got his hockey games, and his 7-year-old great-grandson A.J.'s games to go to."
Says Marsh, "When I was A.J.'s age, we'd play hockey on the ponds and cricks around Camillus. Sometimes we'd flood a field and wait for it to freeze over. I played hockey in high school at Onondaga Valley Academy. Then the war came, and I was drafted. We were shipped to France but I never saw combat. After D-Day, when I returned, I got my diploma and helped coach the team."
He was good enough to play semipro for the Syracuse Stars, but that didn't put food on the table so he became a sheet-metal worker, married and raised a family (five sons, one daughter). But except for a brief time when he broke his leg, he's never stopped playing, be it in pick-up games, the Electricians' League, or the Snoopy Senior Tournament that cartoonist Charles Schulz used to hold on his personal rink in Santa Rosa, California. "Dad drove all the way out there when he was 79," Tom says. "Thank God for rumble strips."
"I never dreamed I'd be playing this long," Marsh says.
Because the club was hosting a 95th-birthday luncheon for Marsh after the scrimmage, there was a full complement of players -- and stories. There was Van Slyke, who skates with the best of them and gets off shots befitting defensemen with real arms. There's John Taylor, a 64-year-old chiropractic radiologist from Toronto who was once given a stick signed by the 1962 Stanley Cup champion Maple Leafs (Frank Mahovlich, Johnny Bower, Dave Keon, the Tim Horton, et al.) for being the most improved player in his youth league. "I wasn't the smartest player, though," Taylor says. "I sawed it down and used it to play street hockey."
Elwell is also a transplant, from Lachine, Quebec. "Came here to play with the Blazers in '69 on an injury assignment for what was supposed to be 30 days, and it turned into 50 years," he says. "While I was still playing, I decided to open a bar near the rink called 'The Back Door.' Opening night, I played a game, then went over to the bar. The crowd was so big the entrance was blocked. I had to go back door to get into my own bar. Ran that for 18 years before they tore it down for a parking lot."
The heartbeat of the club is provided by Steve Phelps, who keeps the books, maintains the website ("Welcome To Our Den") and plays on the over-70 tournament team. "What an amazing group of people," he says. "Hockey binds us together, sometimes in unusual ways. A couple of years ago when we were playing in Cicero, I was trying to join the play and found myself heading right toward D.D. Lynch, who played at Onondaga Valley with Marsh. So I veered off and ended up clobbering Danny Siccio, our airline pilot. As we got up, he asked me, 'What happened there?' I said, 'Well, it was either you or D.D.' And he said, 'Good choice.'"
The player most devoted to the Gray Wolves is Gardiner, whose oldest son is an Army Ranger. She grew up playing the game in New Brunswick, married a Baptist minister, moved to Syracuse, raised her kids and then found herself in a difficult situation. "Long story short, they needed a goalie and I needed a friend, and I got 30 of them," says Gardiner. "They encouraged me to go back to school, and I ended up getting a law degree and a master's in social work from Syracuse. The Gray Wolves changed my life for the better. They even taught me how to dance."
And dance they did toward the end of the scrimmage. Marsh found himself with the puck on his stick in front of Mahar, who towers over him.
Not even Mahar, who does the weather for the NBC affiliate in Syracuse, could forecast what Marsh would do. "He put the puck two-thirds of the way up the left-hand post," Mahar says. "I got my stick on it, but it was a really good shot, a really good goal.
"Afterward, he asked me if I let him score because his birthday was coming up, and I told him what I'm telling you. I wouldn't let anybody score on me, not even Marsh."
And so Marsh skated back to the bench, smiling as players on both sides celebrated his goal. When the scrimmage finally ended, Marsh was the last one off the ice.
After the players got dressed, they all headed over to Mo's Pit BBQ in nearby Camillus, for Marsh's birthday lunch. The restaurant is owned by Gray Wolf Kevin Morrissey, 59, who's usually the best player on the ice. Also in attendance were old friends and family members, including Marsh's two older (!) sisters. There were treasured photographs and laminated articles, a big sheet cake, an invocation, a series of toasts and the presentation of a Gray Wolves jersey with a C on the front and "WEBSTER 95 LEGEND" on the back.
Then, once again, Marsh found himself with the puck on his stick.
"I just want to say one thing to you married players out there," he said in closing. "The next time, every time, you leave the house to go play hockey, please give your wife a kiss, and tell her how much you appreciate the opportunity to play this great game. And I want you to know how much I appreciate this."
A goal and an assist. Not a bad day for The Grayest Wolf.