When I was your age ...
It’s a phrase said on rocking chairs and recliners everywhere. Good storytellers come in all forms, but some of the best are the have-beens who take trips down memory lane to remind themselves of the past. It’s their only way of traveling back in time to remember the good times, before the aches and pains forced them to the sidelines.
Drinking a cup of joe at the kitchen table of his Tonawanda home, Eddie Farrell looks the part of any old-timer with a lifetime of tales. Except he doesn’t need to look back on his glory days; he’s still living them.
Farrell, 81, still packs his hockey bag twice a week to head to the rink. More than 70 years after he first put on a pair of skates, he’s still lacing up for the “Leafs” in the Niagara Falls Senior Alumni Hockey League.
As a goalie, to boot.
“The guy is unbelievable,” said Jim Krolewski, a physical therapist and one of Farrell’s teammates. “He moves around like (Dominik) Hasek for his age.”
But on this Thursday night at Hyde Park Ice Pavilion, Farrell is getting worked over. In the locker room, that is, not on the ice. He’s the team’s “Hollywood star” for the evening and the lone player forced into fielding questions from a reporter before a game against the “Blackhawks.”
One by one, his buddies bust his chops.
“Your best bet is to stay quiet,” Farrell says. “As soon as you say something, it’s pin the tail on the donkey.”
As jokes fly, Farrell’s teammates work on pregame hydration from the case of Molson Canadian in the center of the locker room. The Eagles blare from a lone speaker.
Life in the fast lane, surely make you lose your mind. Life in the fast lane.
Plenty of the horseplay follows with, “Don’t put that in the newspaper.”
“Don’t pay attention to that,” one guy chimes in. “We’re all good Catholic boys.”
It’s all in good fun, Farrell concedes. And it’s a big reason why he keeps showing up each week at his age.
“Right now, I take it a year at a time,” Farrell said. “I really enjoy it and I have fun doing it. The guys are good to me and I can’t ask for anything more than that.”
His teammates don’t work together. They don’t have an orchard of childhood roots. Just a shared passion for the game that has brought them together on Thursday nights for the last 25 years.
You won’t see YouTube-worthy brawls here. There are no standings or even a league champion at year’s end.
“It’s just a night for us to go out and have a good time,” said Hank Hughes, who co-captains the Leafs with Jim Heft.
It’s a group of guys who come from all sorts of professions. “Hefty Man” was an electrician. “Hammer” worked at National Fuel. “Velcro” is a retired history teacher. “Whitey” is a physical therapist. Naturally, “Eddie the Eagle,” who retired from General Motors, fits right in.
“Throughout the years in the league, we’ve played with doctors, lawyers, dentists, electricians, construction workers, professors,” Hughes said. “We’re all interchangeable parts and we will fit it together.”
Hockey for the ages
Farrell isn’t the first guy to grace the Hyde Park ice at such an advanced age. Teammate Lee Herbst is a 77-year-old defenseman who is “still a very high-caliber player,” according to Hughes. “He can go all day long.”
Other names like Charlie Fekete, Paul Koukal and Al Rusk are like folk heroes in local dressing rooms. Rusk, 91, played hockey up until about six months ago, finally giving it up because of a hamstring injury.
“My doctor said, ‘I think you’ve had enough,’ ” Rusk said.
Over the course of Rusk’s hockey career, he dislocated both shoulders, battled knee problems and in one case, had to have a plastic surgeon sew his upper lip back together after taking a puck to his kisser.
“Ya know, just the ordinary stuff,” he said.
After spending nearly a century on the ice, giving it up hasn’t been easy.
“Let’s put it this way, my skates are still on the drying rack downstairs — I never hung ‘em up,” Rusk said. “Every time I walk past them, I want to put them on. But I know I can’t. If I break a hip at 91, I’m done.”
Rusk, known as “Smooth Al” to his former teammates, also had the pleasure of putting pucks past Farrell for nearly 50 years, since their days playing in the Memorial Auditorium.
“Eddie made a hero out of me I scored so many times on him,” Rusk said.
When they were much younger, Rusk and Farrell played at a rink in Fort Erie for years. Back then, Farrell estimated it cost about $10 to rent the rink for an hour, but if “Frenchie” was managing the ice, “We’d just steal some cigarettes from our older brothers, pull ‘em together and he’d give it to us for free,” he said.
The rink in Fort Erie was basically a glorified pole barn, with metal fencing acting as boards behind the net.
“In those days, there weren’t any helmets or masks,” Farrell said. “Guys would just pin your face into the fence.”
In fact, Farrell was one of the first local guys to start wearing a goalie mask — a homemade one.
One day, on a bench in his basement, Farrell put tin foil over his eyes and had his son and nephew pour a plastic mixture on his face. When it started to harden, they took the mold off and put some vaseline on the inside of it. After some crafting and configuring, voilà — he had his mask.
“It worked just fine,” said Farrell, who can still recall some of the black blemishes pucks caused over the years.
Farrell didn’t need all the bells and whistles. After all, he did use a kneeling sponge, often used for washing floors, as a blocker pad.
Stories like that remind you of Farrell’s age, but on the ice, it’s hard to tell.
In the first period on this Thursday, teammates chant “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie” after he makes a save to turn aside a 2-on-1 opportunity. More chants ring after he poke checks a loose puck to stall another odd-man rush.
Minutes later, he’s barking out orders to his defensemen.
“Most of the time we can’t understand what he says, but he’s always talking all game long. He’s not yelling; he’s just always making it fun,” teammate Peter Herbst said.
“I just wish we could turn his subtitles on,” another teammate cracks.
While still sharp, Farrell is far from superhuman. A quick wrister beats him glove side to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead.
“I’ll be lucky if I’m walking at his age, let alone flopping around making crazy saves,” Herbst said. “Sometimes he just makes your jaw just drop.”
Holding it together
In May, Eddie and his wife, Bernice, are due to celebrate their 60th anniversary. It all started at a Riverside ice cream parlor, and the rest is history.
“That milkshake ended up costing me a lot of money, but it was a good investment,” Eddie said.
For most of their time together, Eddie has been playing hockey two, sometimes three times a week. Bernice hasn’t held him back a bit.
“That was the only thing she agreed with me on when we get married,” Farrell said with a laugh.
Over the last few years, however, it’s been more difficult for Eddie to keep playing. Not because of how he’s feeling physically, but because of his wife’s health.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer's nearly 20 years ago, Bernice now requires around-the-clock care.
“There are days when it’s pretty tough to leave her, but I’m lucky I have people around me to help out,” Farrell said. “It’s difficult because she can’t communicate with me like she used to. She usually just says one or two words here or there. That’s the toughest part. I miss talking to her.”
Farrell, who grew up with 13 siblings, has a lot of help from the family to make sure he can play each week. Whether it be nieces, nephews, his two sons or daughter, everyone does their part to make sure he can make it to the rink.
“When you have such great family, who are all are willing to pitch in, it’s amazing,” said Denise Pellegrino, Farrell’s daughter. “As a parent, you never want to lose a child. But as an adult, you never want to see your parent as a child. It’s weird how the world comes back around. How parents become dependent on us after we were so dependent on them.”
Pellegrino works at Hospice Care, where she often cares for patients her father’s age, while Eddie is out still doing the same things he did as a kid. Even when it seems like a lot for Eddie to handle, she knows hockey is something he needs to make time for.
“He needs that time to be social with the guys and play hockey,” Pellegrino said. “Even at 81, we keep pushing him to keep it doing it. It makes him a good caregiver.”
Farrell holds it together at home. He’s the primary caregiver to Bernice, he does all the cleaning, still snowblows the driveway and is apparently a king in the kitchen.
“He makes the best fruitcake,” teammate Pattsy Desimone shouts from his locker.
Other teammates obsess over his pastels.
“But you won’t get any. These guys have already got their orders in,” Farrell joked.
‘A good horseshoe’
As soon as he steps in the locker room, he can smell the ointment. He watches teammates wrap themselves in tape and braces. Farrell calls teammate Gary Brennan “The Bionic Man” because he’s had so many procedures to stay in the lineup.
These Leafs have had shoulder problems, knee problems, back problems — you name it. And Eddie?
Not a damn thing.
“I have a good horseshoe,” Farrell says, smirking, “except when I’m trying to stop goals.”
Lucky? Maybe a bit. But any octogenarian hockey player has to be a little stubborn, too. Farrell’s doctor has even been telling him to call it quits before he gets hurt, but “worrying doesn’t help you in life,” Farrell says.
So, on this Thursday night, Farrell can’t imagine being anywhere else. Even if his 25 saves weren’t enough in a 6-4 loss to the Blackhawks, he knows it’s just a short walk to the locker room, where there’s a cold beer with his name on it and a room full of shenanigans.
“Life’s been good to me” Farrell said. “I’m fortunate that I’m still able to do what I love.”