They enthusiastically play twice a week at Skaneateles Community Center
By David Figura
Hockey sticks in hand and pulling or carrying their big equipment bags, one by one they make their way inside the Skaneateles Community Center on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
They’re members of the Gray Wolves Senior Hockey club, a group of players ranging in age from 50 to 92. They enthusiastically take to the ice twice a week and scrimmage for 1½ hours on one of the center’s two rinks.
No score is kept and the emphasis is on recreation, getting a workout and camaraderie. While others have given up the game at their age, the Gray Wolves have found a frozen fountain of youth.
“People who ask I tell them I play old-fart hockey. We’re old men playing a kids’ game,” said Jim Hall, 72, of Marietta, who’s been playing with the group for the past 22 years.
The Gray Wolves come from all walks of life, with varying playing experience. Those on the ice, mostly retirees, include a doctor, a lawyer, a business owner, an airline pilot, a sheet metal worker, an electrical contractor, a banker, an insurance broker, a marketer and a golf course owner.
The scrimmages take place year-round. After dividing themselves up into two teams, they follow a simple rule in regard to substitutions, which usually take place every couple of minutes.
“You skate; you get tired and get off the ice. And you don’t change when the puck is in the defensive zone,” said Steve Phelps, 73, of Fulton, a retired engineer and the group’s treasurer and tournament director. “There are some impact players, some who skate faster. We try to divide them up to balance the teams.”
There is no checking against the boards or slap shots allowed. When a player goes down, all play stops.
“Sometimes players get too competitive and you yell at them,” Phelps said. “If someone gets too aggressive, we tell them that’s not what we do here.”
Formed in 1990, the Gray Wolves over the years have called rinks in Lysander, Cicero and more recently Skaneateles their home ice.
The oldest, active Gray Wolf is John Anagnost, 92, of Manlius, a retired banker. Anagnost said he grew up in Sherburne in Chenango County, playing pond hockey and listening to Toronto Maple Leafs games on the radio.
He said for years he has run and cross-country skied to stay in shape. “And, yeah, I have a brown belt in judo,” he added.
“Why do I keep playing hockey? Because I can and I love it,” said the senior defenseman. “I play twice a week and I am alive when I’m out there.”
Anagnost said he’s always been a defenseman. “At my age, I’m not fast enough to be a forward. It’s all about positioning on the ice,” he said.
He related how goalies often “chirp” at their defensemen, complaining about them being in the way, not clearing a puck quick enough, among other things.
“We had one goalie who was scored upon three to four times and he was chirping at me,” Anagnost said. “So, the next time I got the puck I turned and shot it at him and he saved it. And I said, ‘That’s the first one you saved today.’ He kinda laughed and so did I. We were friends after that. He doesn’t chirp at me anymore.”
Apart from the weekday scrimmages, the thirst for competition remains alive for some members who also travel to out-of-town tournaments for older players, competing in 50-, 60- and 70-year and older divisions. Over the years, the Gray Wolves have fielded teams and traveled to competitions in Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Canada.
In addition, the group now hosts its own tournament each spring at the Skaneateles Community Center.
Phelps said there’s no such thing as being an official Gray Wolves member.
“We don’t have members. We’re just a collection of guys who get together and play,” he said, adding “the group has an email list of nearly 90 players and on average 40 show and play on a regular basis.”
One of those players who shows regularly at the community center scrimmages and competes in tournaments is David VanSlyke, 75, of Cicero. He plays with prosthetic arms, the result of losing both his hands and forearms in his 40s following an electrocution accident while working as lineman for the telephone company.
Over the years, VanSlyke has stayed active by running, having completed 32 Mountain Goat runs, two Boilermaker runs and half a dozen marathons. He said he doesn’t race anymore, but still jogs and lifts weights.
He said his most memorable Gray Wolves moment came while skating in a tournament in Danbury, Connecticut. It happened during a face-off at his team’s end. At the time, there was a women’s team there competing in the 30-year-old age group. Several members of that team spotted VanSlyke, realized he was playing with prosthetic arms and started chanting his name.
“And then several got behind the goal, against the glass. They lifted their shirts and showed their boobs,” he said. “I never looked up because it was a faceoff, but everyone else in the place got the show. They didn’t distract me. I was focused on the puck. I talked to the women afterward and they just thought I was cool.”
The weekday scrimmages at the Skaneateles Community Center often include Debbie Gardiner, 60, of Liverpool who plays goalie. A former lawyer who now works as a medical lab technician, she grew up in New Brunswick, Canada, and played hockey as a youngster with her brother on the river near their home.
“We threw together a girls’ team in high school,” she said. “I took a break from hockey for 18 years, had seven kids and got back to it my latter 30s.”
She particularly likes coming to Skaneateles, she said, because the older guys “take it easy on me. I love it. When you’re on the ice there are no distractions. You’re just there in the moment. It’s an adrenaline rush when they’re coming at you fast.”
The group’s “ringer” for the past decade has been bar owner Brian Elwell, an inductee of the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame and former member of the Syracuse Blazers, of the Eastern Hockey League. Elwell, now in his late 70s, hasn’t been playing recently with the Gray Wolves.
Then, there’s Marshall Webster, one of the original Gray Wolves, who played regularly until he was 95. Teammates said right up until the end his skating and playing ability was something to see.
Jeff Averill, 77, of Marcellus, a retired Navy pilot, remembers one tournament in Laurel, Maryland, where a crowd gathered and kept growing larger when they realized a 90-year-old was skating for the Gray Wolves.
“Marshall scored a goal in front of them and the crowd went wild,” he said. “We all want to be Marshall Webster.”
Channel 3 TV weatherman Wayne Mahar played goalie with the Gray Wolves until he retired in 2021 and moved to South Carolina. He just turned 67 and is still loyal to the Gray Wolves. He plans to play goalie for them this coming March when they travel to Maryland for a tournament.
As with any sport, injuries are part of the game. The Gray Wolves have all had their share of such things as pulled muscles, bruises and in some cases lost teeth during their years of playing.
“Need medical advice on anything? Someone in his room can probably give it,” smiled Jim Bonsted, 67, of Fayetteville, a small business owner, as he laced up his skates in the locker room before a scrimmage.
Anagnost, the eldest player, said over the years he’s dealt with a broken ankle, a concussion, a torn bicep and a torn rotator cuff.
Hall remembers one time when he tried to skate too fast around the net to clear a puck, tripped on something and crashed into the boards, cracking three ribs.
Afterward a lady at work, upon hearing of Hall’s injury, wanted to know how much longer he was going to keep playing “that kids’ game.”
He responded: “When the first shovel of dirt hits me in the face, that’s when I plan on stopping.”
Top image: Action shot, from left, Garth Werner, 54, Randy Guinn, 71, and goalie Debbie Gardiner, 60.(Photo courtesy of Don Therre)