Hockey for life - The Buffalo News

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Hockey for life

Long after many of us have turned in for the evening, their night is just beginning. These men are also weekend warriors, rising early on a Saturday morning just to play the game they grew up loving as a child. From Riverworks to Lockport and everywhere in between, the hockey rinks of Western New York are full of grown men who continue to be intoxicated by the game of hockey.

Some of these men take part in one of the many adult leagues offered in the area, including the popular Performax League that plays primarily at Northtown Center, and the Labatt Adult Leagues based out of Holiday Twin Rinks (Cheektowaga) and Leisure Rinks (West Seneca). Many leagues offer over-40 divisions with skill levels ranging from beginner to competitive

For those who don’t care as much about the scoreboard and standings, there are any number of informal pick-up games going on at rinks throughout the region, where all it usually takes is $10 and some post-game beverages to get an invite.

So even though the legs may be a little heavier, and the hands aren’t as quick as they once were, what is it that drives these men to keep playing? A common theme emerged.

"The love of the game and the camaraderie with the other guys," was the answer of Mike Gibert, 49. "It’s satisfying to know at my age I can still play. Not as well as I used to, but it’s still awesome to be able to get out on the ice and play somewhat competitively."

Gilbert, Sr. VP of Buffalo Sabres and General Manager of HarborCenter, has played with his Robo teammates in the Performax League for more than 20 years, playing once a week in their winter league.

Like Gilbert, Mike Lesakowski has been playing hockey for as long as he can remember. Now 45, Lesakowski still plays an average of three to four days a week. He has a standing ice time every Friday morning at HarborCenter, skates on the weekends with a group that’s been together for 15 years, and also participates in one league in the summer and another in the winter.

"It’s more fun to go play hockey with your buddies than it is to go to the gym. Hockey is really my primary exercise," says Lesakowski, a senior project manager with Benchmark & Turnkey. "Now as I get older, the camaraderie of it is just as important. Just being around the guys is the best, there’s a real social aspect to it."

Lesakowski brought national media attention to Buffalo this summer when he organized the "11-Day Power Play" at HarborCenter, a fundraiser for Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Joined by 39 of his hockey playing friends, Lesakowski’s venture raised $1.2 million for cancer research, and set the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous hockey game. The game started on June 22 at 9 p.m. and ended the morning of July 3 with a final score of 1,725-1,697.

When compiling his list of participants for the event, Lesakowski tended to lean toward guys who were closer to his age, rather than simply putting together a roster of young legs.

"In talking to different friends, they told me to not just select a group of people that were younger, better players. You’re probably better off getting guys that are a little older, might take it more seriously, and

have the ability to be flexible in their personal lives. It ended up being that guys in their 40s were better suited to do our event than just a group of all younger guys.

"Mentally it was pretty draining. Some of the older guys may have had a different perspective on life. They may have lost a loved one to cancer, and what we did put it in perspective. Even though it seemed hard, there are a lot worse things in the world, and I think the older guys had a grasp of that."

One of those guys was Allan Davis, who at 62 was the oldest player in the event. Davis, the program director at WGR Sports Radio 550, still plays three times a week, including in the Friday group led by Lesakowski. Even with his demanding career, Davis can’t wait to walk into the rink every weekend.

"From the very first time I put on skates I have loved the game. I still look forward to putting on the gear every week and hanging out with guys. Most of my closest friends are hockey players. Playing pickup for an hour, busting each other’s chops and going for a coffee afterwards never gets old."

Completing the 11-Day Power Play was a remarkable accomplishment for Davis and his teammates. But the event’s success is a testament to Lesakowski’s vision, and his knowledge of what still makes this game of hockey so unique for so many men, regardless of age.

"The camaraderie we had leading up to the event, and during it, just made it that much more special," said Lesakowski. "It’s that camaraderie that really drives a men’s league player."

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