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Prime Puck Time

Playing hockey in your 50s doesn't come without bumps and bruises. But for guys like Tom Aurilio, it's a risk worth taking for the on-ice play, locker room chatter, and postgame bravado and beers.

John Tranchina
Marc Rains
February 28, 2018

Even though the Tulsa Knights surrendered a two-goal lead in the final three minutes, including the equalizer with just 21 seconds remaining, and wound up settling for a 3-3 tie (after no one from either team scored in the postgame shootout), the mood in the locker room afterward was still upbeat.

“Hey, at least we still get to drink beer afterward,” jokes Knights defenseman Tom Aurilio, 58.

And yes, the Knights players, many of whom have been playing hockey together for over 10 years and range in age from mid-30s to early-60s, were happily drinking beer even though it was about 10 a.m. on a Sunday.

That’s just how they roll. They love the game, don’t take themselves too seriously (after all, they are playing in the D League at the Oilers Ice Center on Mingo between 61st and 71st Streets), and have a lot of fun with each other — win, lose or draw.

“I guess it’s just an escape from life,” Aurilio says. “You leave all that stuff outside, you come in here, you chase that stupid little black puck, and you don’t think about anything else. Everybody gives each other crap on the bench. We laugh the whole game away. It’s the last gasps any of us have of youth. We all feel like kids again.”

The older gentlemen like Aurilio do have to deal with health issues, including occasional injuries, although it was the Knights’ 34-year-old goaltender, Rocky Ricci, who was hurt in this one when Aurilio’s stick inadvertently caught him in the neck at the end of the second period. Ricci stayed down for a while, but eventually got up and finished the game.

Tom Aurilio's team loves hockey, don’t take themselves too seriously (after all, they are playing in the D League at the Oilers Ice Center), and have a lot of fun with each other — win, lose or draw. (Photo: Marc Rains)
‍Tom Aurilio's team loves hockey, don’t take themselves too seriously (after all, they are playing in the D League at the Oilers Ice Center), and have a lot of fun with each other — win, lose or draw. (Photo: Marc Rains)

“Tom was fighting with the guy in front and his stick got me in the neck,” Ricci says. “It’s sore, but I’m fine. It just kind of surprised me.”

Ricci, one of the few guys on the team who grew up playing hockey locally, in Broken Arrow, noted that he wouldn’t be deterred by a mere bruise.

“It’s a good group of guys. It’s nice to get away for a while and just play and not worry about anything,” he says.

Ramon Cardiel, 59, has endured his share of hockey-related injuries, but he also still enjoys playing.

“I’ve had five knee surgeries and a couple of shoulder surgeries, all from hockey,” reports Cardiel, who grew up playing roller hockey in Mexico City and has been playing with the Knights for about 10 years. “The knee was in ‘94, and the shoulders about five or 10 years ago each. I am put together with duct tape. You take a couple of Advil and you’re OK.”

Cardiel points out that the game is not quite as rough as, say, an Oilers game at the BOK Center or the NHL.

“The thing is, most people don’t realize hockey is a low-impact sport, as long as you don’t play checking, and the men’s league is no checking,” he says. Checking in ice hockey is any one of a number of defensive techniques, aimed at disrupting an opponent with possession of the puck, or separating them from the puck entirely. “It’s very low-impact on your knees, and you will have some contact, but it’s not anything like what you see on TV. It’s more finesse, lots of passing; it’s fun. Most of the old guys will have a very good time, do some cardio, and that’s it. No big deal.”

While the Knights’ 3-3 tie with Mayhem Jan. 28 was pretty congenial, the games can sometimes get a bit intense, even in the D League (or officially, the Bronze Division), but as Aurilio points out, that depends on the make-up of their opponents.

“It can get competitive every once in a while,” says Aurilio, who grew up in Boston as a fan of the Bruins and Bobby Orr, and works for American Airlines. “It depends, usually, on the age of the team you’re playing. The younger the guys, the more competitive they want to be. Last week, we were in a real competitive game. We got beat pretty bad by some young guys who thought they were playing for the Stanley Cup. Most of the games are good, friendly games. Most every team is younger than us. There are very few guys our age playing.”

“It used to be that everybody out here was so aggressive,” adds Mike Szymanski, 59, the team leader who started the Knights back in 1995 and is the manager of central operations for BP Oil. “You were playing like you didn’t have to get up for work tomorrow and you were getting paid for this. Now, it’s more about having a good time, everybody takes it easy. Even players on other teams, they get a little worked up, get a little enthusiastic, usually they listen to reason, and they take it down a notch. Because we’re old and we’ve got to get up and go to work the next day.”

Besides the physical investment, playing hockey is a commitment for these guys. While their game against Mayhem had a reasonable start time of 8:30 a.m. Sunday, sometimes the games are at 10:30 p.m., sometimes during the week. They also pay a fee of $2,200 per team for the season, which, with about 10 players per team, works out to about $220 each.

They just love playing hockey and will keep doing it for as long as they can.

“It’s fun,” Szymanski says. “I know someday I’m not going to be able to play anymore, and I dread it.”

“I notice one thing, though — the older I get, the better I was,” Aurilio says. “We talk about, if we ever get to the point where we can’t play anymore, we’ll still come out and meet in the parking lot and drink beer anyway.”