Ponce de León discovered Florida while searching for the fountain of youth. Adult hockey players looking for their own fountain of youth are following a similar path.
They make their annual pilgrimage to places like Ellenton and Brandon, leaving behind the snow and freezing temperatures of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and upstate New York, escaping to the white sandy beaches and expansive golf courses scattered along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
But more than anything, they come for the hockey.
Over the course of several weekends in April, the Tampa region provides the perfect setting for adult players to hit the links in the morning, the rink in the afternoon and the heating pads at night.
“From the players’ perspective, competing in a National Championship event is first and foremost about high-level hockey. But apart from that, it’s about the things that this region has to offer – the beaches, the golf, the weather – that keeps players coming back to compete in our tournaments,” said Ashley Bevan, director of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey Department.
From the frozen ponds of Eagle River, Wis., to the sundrenched rinks of Florida, every USA Hockey event offers the same opportunities for adult players to recapture something from their youth, reunite with old friends, share a few laughs and play the game they love.
For so many who have played the game, the locker room is what they miss most. These tournaments provide them with a chance to get that back.
For many teams, the opening game or two are needed to familiarize themselves with their teammates, many of whom they have not seen since the last tournament. Competing at Nationals is a chance to catch up with old friends.
“How’s the wife and kids? Where are you working these days? Whatever happened to so-and-so?”
Once they hit the ice, it’s time to recapture the magic. But it won’t come easy. There are cobwebs to shake off and creaks to work out of old joints. It also takes time to get used to playing with teammates, many haven’t seen since the last tournament.
“Needless to say, there will be no tic-tac-toe passing out there today,” said one member of the Army Black Knights, whose players are scattered around the country. “We’d be happy with a tic and a tac.”
Just like riding a bicycle, cagey veterans can still think the game. It’s getting the body to obey the brain that can sometimes be a challenge. It’s like the line from the old Little Feat song, “You know that you’re over the hill when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill.”
As the weekend goes on, the games get noticeably better as players rediscover moves they haven’t used in years, on-ice instincts return and teammates become more familiar with each other.
Still, backchecking may be in short supply, and few are willing to argue a penalty call because it brings with it a chance for two minutes of uninterrupted rest in the box.
As games wind down, tournament officials wheel coolers full of cold beer and water into locker rooms. At the older tournaments, bottled water tends to be in greater demand than the beer, but still it’s the idea of reviewing the recent past that keeps players sitting in their sweat-stained T-shirts, loosened breezers and untied skates long after the final whistle blows.
As the weekend flies by, players who just days ago had a spring in their step, are seen doing the Fred Sanford shuffle across the lobby, groaning as they grab a seat in the bar after the game is over.
“There’s not enough Advil to take away all the soreness I felt this morning,” one player said prior to Saturday’s twin bill.
By the time Sunday rolls around, players have had just about as much fun as they can stand, but still manage to suck it up for one last game. While pride and bragging rights are on the line, just as they are in any tournament, there’s a sense that winning is secondary among those competing at these tournaments.
What brings players here, and what keeps them coming back year after year, is not the fancy banners, championship hats or even special Easton gloves for the winners. For every player, from the one-time college star to the ankle-bending novice, the weekend is about competition on the ice and camaraderie off it. It’s what brought them back here this year, and what will punch their return ticket for years to come.
When they return home to their families and jobs and day-to-day routines, they’ll carry with them memories of a great weekend of hockey.
And the tan they gained on the golf course is just icing on the cake.