NIAGARA FALLS, New York (Reuters) - As an 89-year-old recreational hockey player who has never lost a tooth to a puck or an opponent’s elbow, Paul Koukal is a man who knows how to beat the odds.
So when he says he is hopeful his beloved Buffalo Sabres will skate their way from this weekend’s delayed National Hockey League season opener to their first Stanley Cup championship, he may be on to something.
“I think they should get it one of these days, maybe in my lifetime. They’d better hurry,” said Koukal, a retired dentist as he donned skates on Thursday to play in his weekly men’s league hockey game.
His “Leafs” shut out the “Canadiens” 4-0, and Koukal, wearing a jersey printed with the number 9 and “Doc” on the back, left the ice victorious.
“I don’t go into the penalty box very often,” Koukal said, explaining how he managed never to lose a tooth after decades playing a sport where a gaping smile is considered collateral damage.
To his family’s cheers of “Doc, Doc, Doc,” he skated out onto the public ice rink with his teammates in the non-contact Niagara Falls Senior Alumni Hockey League. They are retired factory workers, school administrators, physical therapists, electricians and accountants, most aged 45 to 75.
“We all started this thing back when we were 30 years old and now we’re all getting up there, but we just love the sport so much we just keep going at it,” said Leafs co-captain Jim Heft, 66, a retired electrician.
Tom Reilly, 75, from the opposing Canadiens team, called it a “respectful league” where players of similar strengths find one another on the ice.
“The younger guys will go up against the younger guys - if one of the older guys gets the puck, they’ll let him make a play,” said Reilly, who has no cartilage in his right knee and has two heart stents.
The NHL lockout delayed the start of the season - originally scheduled for October 11 - to Saturday, and shortened it to 48 games from 82. The Sabres’ first game is on Sunday against the visiting Philadelphia Flyers.
During the lockout, the men’s recreational league used its own resources to help quench participants’ thirst for hockey.
“With the lockout, you look for different things to do, you know, you play more hockey,” said Leafs player Pete Seefeld, 60, a retired manufacturing supervisor.
Over the years as a Sabres fan, Koukal has admired scores of players and, as the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, was particularly drawn to goaltender Dominik Hasek of the Czech Republic.
Koukal said he had a soft spot for the sport, complete with its body-slamming checks and occasional brawls, calling it “one of the nicest games” because it can be played to different degrees of intensity.
“Old farts like us can chase the puck and get some exercise,” Koukal said.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Peter Cooney