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Competition fuels hockey players in 60-and-over tournament

Last Sunday in Ellenton, Fla., the Byfuglien Trucking 60-and-over team won its fifth straight USA Hockey national championship. And if you think “60-and-over” and “hockey” don’t belong in the same sentence, you’d be wrong.

“It’s not like you would think, a bunch of old guys sitting around talking about their infirmities,” said Steve Arndt, one of three Concord men on the team. “It’s not like that there. There are a bunch of Jack LaLanne’s looking back at you.”

The nucleus of the team hails from Roseau, Minn., a town of less than 3,000 people near the Canadian border. That nucleus includes Ryan Brandt, who grew up in Roseau but came to the University of New Hampshire to play hockey in 1966. After a stellar career at UNH, Brandt took a teaching job at Merrimack Valley High School. He’s retired from full-time teaching, but he still lives

in Penacook, and he never stopped skating.

Brandt has played, coached and refereed hockey all over the state, and five years ago he joined up with his old Roseau pals on the Byfuglien team. When they needed another skater the next year, Brandt called on Arndt, who is from Shoreview, Minn., but came to New Hampshire to play hockey at Dartmouth and has been living in Concord since 1972. And just this year Brandt and Arndt recruited Gary Young to join Byfulgien. Young hails from Milton, Ontario, a Toronto suburb, and played college hockey at Cornell, but he has lived in Concord since 1979.

There were 12 60-plus teams in Florida last week, but only four of them were playing at the elite level and competing for that national championship. Four teams may not seem like a legitimate field for a national title, but those four were made up of some of the best players from the United States and Canada, including several who had played in the NHL.

“Winning it this year was a little bit more special because the competition was so strong,” Brandt said. “A couple of teams, one of them another team out of Minnesota, had a couple of ex-NHL players on the team, and the team out of Michigan that over the years has been strong was strong again, so the competition was really better than in previous years.”

Real hockey

Another thing that separated the elite from the intermediate teams was the refereeing. It’s supposed to be a no-check competition, but that wasn’t really the case at the elite level.

“If you play at the elite level, they kind of let you play real hockey,” Arndt said. “I think the referees figure anybody that puts their hat into play at this level, they know what they’re going to get. If they don’t want to play in there, they can play at the intermediate level like the eight other teams chose to do. They want to play good hockey, but they don’t want to get into the rough stuff, and if you play at the elite level, you can pretty well count on it’s going to be full speed.”

Arndt added that no one is out to cause injury, but there was a collision during one of the games that left enough blood on the ice that the Zamboni had to be called out to clean up the mess. And unfortunately for Young, he did suffer an injury (dislocated shoulder) in the second game and had to miss the final three games of the tournament.

“It happened in one of two situations, and I can’t be sure which one because I was going on adrenaline after that. I think I just fell on it funny, to be honest, nothing glorious,” Young said. “I wish I could tell you I ran someone through the boards and I came out worse for wear, but that’s not what happened.”

While it may be fun to talk about the rough stuff, that’s only a side effect of the real reason these guys all come together for this tournament: to play the sport at the highest level they can.

“When you get older, the opportunities are very rare to play anything at a level that is flat out full speed and as close to real hockey as it used to be back when you were in college, and it’s a cherished opportunity to go do it,” Arndt said. “When you’re sitting in the locker room with these guys, it looks just like college, it looks jut like the best that you can hope for. They are at the task and they all are there to win.”

Title five

The first stage of the tournament was a round-robin format where all the teams played one another once. Going into its final round-robin game, Byfuglien not only needed to beat the team from Michigan, but needed to do it by two goals in order to win the goal-differential tiebreaker and finish in the top two. Byfuglien pulled it off with a 5-2 victory to set up a rematch with Michigan in the final.

The championship game proved to be much tighter. It was knotted, 2-2, at the end of regulation before going into what Brandt described as “kind of a strange overtime.”

Each team had a breakaway chance in the opening shift of the extra session, but neither converted. Then, only moments later, Byfuglien put a shot on net and stuffed home the rebound for the its fifth straight title.

“The celebration was pretty low key after,” Brandt said. “Everyone seemed to go their own direction. Some of them had to fly back right away, so there really wasn’t much happening.”

The next stage

Young’s shoulder is now on the mend, but he’s not sure if he’ll return to the tournament next year.

“I’m giving my competitive hockey career a lot of thought these days,” he said. “I did have fun and I would like to go back, but I just don’t know if that’s going to be the best for me, because right now I should be out on the golf course and I’m not.”

Arndt, who is 63, would like to keep playing for the Byfuglien team, but many of its members are turning 65 this year and may move to the 65-and-over age bracket, so he would have to look for another team to join. Brandt is one of those who will be eligible for the next age bracket in 2014 (he’ll be 65 in December). He might join the older team if enough of his Roseau pals make the leap, but he’s not sure yet.

“You can play as long as you want in the over-60,” said Brandt, who clearly wouldn’t mind the challenge. “So if there’s still a team, I might keep playing with them. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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