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Sport: the way it should be

03/04/02 12:00AM By Jim Luken

At 57, I should no longer be playing hockey. Especially with a group of guys whose mean age is twenty years younger than mine - or more. A voice is telling me: "Hey, old man, maybe it's time to hang up the blades." The trouble is - I'm having too much fun.

The guys I play with meet twice a week on a rink in Lyndonville in the Northeast Kingdom. There is a woman who plays too. And she's good.

We don't have a league - not enough adult players out here in the boonies. So we play what is called "pick-up" hockey. Everyone throws his--or her--stick onto the ice. Teams are established by simply dividing the sticks. Jerseys are then exchanged, so that a light-colored team plays a dark-colored team. What could be simpler, or more fair?

The game begins. And a very strange thing happens. Twelve players-glistening blades attached to their feet--thrust every erg of their energies into this competitive matching of agility, reflexes, speed and aggressiveness, played out on a sheet of ice.

Everyone goes full tilt. Skating speeds of the younger players can top 25 miles per hour. No deliberate "body checking" is permitted. Checking is hockey's equivalent of open-field tackling in football. There is still plenty of incidental contact, spectacular falls, nasty bruises. Rock hard pucks fly toward goal at forty, sixty, eighty miles per hour. Amazingly, no one gets mad...or violent...or vengeful. We compete by the rules of the game, without referees or scorekeepers. Fist-fighting -- so often associated with men -playing-hockey -- never happens.

Even more strangely, no one bothers to keep score. I can't believe what I am seeing, what I am a part of. This can't be mainstream America, I think, where competitive sports have become a delusional commodity, a kind of emotional drug that often induces hostility and cheating and a rabid focus on winning at all costs.

Why are these games so different, I ask myself as I am sitting with the group of players waiting to take our shift on the ice? Maybe because there is absolutely nothing, beyond the game itself, that we are upholding or defending or trying to achieve or avoid. No league cup. No town pride. No demonizing of the opponent. No rival animosities. No vengeful overkill. No insider trading. No shady foreign policies...No agony of defeat. Everyone simply playing his or her best. In the end, we know this is "just a game." But so, in some strange sense, is the rest of our lives, a kind of game. If only the other games, large and small, could be played with the good will, the intensity, the fair play that happens every week, at an unheated rink, in a small town, in northern Vermont.

This is Jim Luken from Sheffield.

--Jim Luken is a writer and manages a serior living facility.



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