Playing sport and keeping fit is no longer the preserve of the young. More and more people are not only living longer, but they are staying fit and active for much longer as well. And we are not talking about Yoga and Tai-Chi here: septuagenarians and octogenarians can be found scaling mountains, running ultra-marathons or cycling the length and breadth of the continent.
One burgeoning area of participation is the Masters hockey scene. From club teams to national teams, more and more people are continuing to play hockey or returning to hockey after an absence. And many of them are living proof that while we might slow up a little with age, we don’t lose the skills and game understanding as we get older – if anything our tactical intelligence gets better with age.
There is also no lessening in terms of competitiveness as players get older. Just as the 20-somethings are always chasing the win, so it is with the 50-year-olds or the 80-year-olds. That desire to top the podium certain doesn’t diminish with age.
And with this being World Cup year, it is not only in London and Bhubaneswar that the best of the best will be competing. From 27 July until 5 August some of the great ‘Golden Oldies’ will be taking centre stage at the Exin Masters World Cup in Egara, Spain while, earlier in June, the Grand Masters World Cup took place at the Real Club de Polo in Terrassa (Barcelona), Spain.
The International Masters Hockey World Cup competitions are being held in Egara for +35, +40, +45, +50, +55 and +60-year-old men and women, while the 60+, 65+, (men and women) and 70+ and 75+ (men only) age groups are catered for at Grand Masters level in Barcelona. These events provide a real showcase for sporting endeavor and excellence at all ages.
With teams from Argentina, Canada, Chile and USA taking part in many of the age groups, the PAHF is well represented at the Masters World Cup and the Grand Masters World Cup. While the number of competing teams has increased each year, it is now becoming clear that the organization at the very top needs to align with the demand for Masters hockey. A goal for the International Hockey Federation is to merge the two organizations that currently provide international Masters hockey – the International Masters Hockey Association and the World Grand Masters Association – into one unified body (“World Masters Hockey”). This body comes into existence officially in January 2019.
The teams that will run out onto the pitch this year at both Terrassa and Egara are a mixture of seasoned internationals, who have continued to play the game throughout their lives, and players who have taken the step from club hockey to international representation later in life.
Ian Baggott is one such player. President of Field Hockey Canada and a member of the Canadian Grand Masters side that recently competed in Barcelona, Baggott first became involved in the sport in 1988 after his three sons introduced him to field hockey.
In those early days of involvement in field hockey, Baggott was largely to be found in a sports administrator’s role, working in junior, club, provincial and national level. His hockey playing experience had been limited to school-age hockey and then, at 45, he took up the game again.
This year, he has reached the pinnacle of his sport, playing in the Canadian Grand Masters, 60+ team, making his international debut at 70 years old.
“I love the nature of hockey,” says Baggott. “From the health aspects of physical fitness required, team bonds established with fellow players, rivalry but also respect and camaraderie for other teams and players. I particularly enjoy watching our younger generations getting to know the game, the thrill of new friendships and bonds between team-mates.”
Baggott explains that Canadian Masters is a "work in progress": after a 20-year gap in competition, the 2016 Masters World Cup in Canberra was the first foray onto the field, with one men's and one women's team participating.
This year Canada is fielding three teams in Terrassa and a team at the Grand Masters. The lack of sufficient players at each age group to make a team is why Baggott finds himself taking to the field with players up to 10 years younger. However, the hope among the Master’s community is that the numbers of participants will grow after each event.
For Baggott, his time as an ‘older' player has been nothing but positive. “This is my first experience with Masters, albeit I have enjoyed Golden Oldie festivals over many years. I have been impressed by the friendship at the event: despite strong on-field team rivalry, teams have a healthy respect for other players and teams.
“And on a personal level, the experience and preparation has brought rewards with better physical fitness – I run twice weekly and do regular gym sessions – as well as improved hockey skills. Both my fitness and game skills have improved, particularly as we play against younger rival teams during the regular league season.”
Another player who has moved seamlessly from administration back into playing is Aaron Sher of Team USA.
Sher was competitions director at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and a former International Hockey Federation (FIH), Pan American Hockey Federation (PAHF) and USA Field Hockey Association Executive Board Member.
As a youngster, Sher played in South Africa, although the international ban on South Africa prevented him from representing his country. He moved to the USA where his knowledge of the game made him a perfect candidate to run the hockey venue at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Sher’s continued involvement at the highest level of administration meant he didn’t pick up a stick again for many years.
Sher is a champion of the proposed merger of the International Masters Hockey Association and the World Grand Masters Association. The merger, says Sher, is just another sign of the custodians of the game moving things along, something he has witnessed throughout his long involvement in the sport.
“Now we are having a Grand Masters World Cup, that has also come from meetings of Boards who try to move things forwards. Huge respect has to go to all those guys who have moved the sport on. It used to be about moving from grass to turf, now it is all about television and replays and broadcast. And this drive for a coherent Masters scene is just another development along the way.”
Sher says Masters events need the support of the national associations if they are to thrive. “It is a funding thing, no question about it. I think the National Associations should be supporting the Masters and taking a role within it. And it makes sense financially, there has to be a number of people across the globe who are financially established within the Masters community; they can definitely help develop the sport.”
As Sher also points out, there is huge potential for expansion within the social Masters hockey scene. Festivals, leagues and cup competitions attract large numbers of competitors and these are often people who are at a stage in their lives where they have time and money to help the sport develop.
Away from the strategic thinking, Sher is loving his return to the playing side of the game. Even after a long absence, the skills and tactical nous have not deserted him. But, like many others, it is the social side that really makes these events standout. “There is a social aspect. You play an intense game and then you stay and have a beer and a chat. And you don’t really talk about the game, although you might talk about games that took place 20 years ago.
“There are also some pretty cool traditions. After each game the captains exchange pennants. Opposing teams nominate a player to receive a ‘player of the match scarf’. The Scottish team give their opponents a bottle of Scotch whisky. It all adds to the atmosphere.”
With FIH, the IMHA and WGMA all in talks to make the Master’s scene one coherent whole, the future of hockey for the older players looks both bright and promising.
At grass-roots club level, keeping players in the game has numerous benefits. An article written on the World Grand Masters Association website by Adrian Stephenson says: “Masters Hockey can play an important role in the future wellbeing of the game through encouraging older players to continue playing and therefore being active members of their clubs and, in many cases, other hockey organizations.”
By keeping players involved in the game for longer, hockey is catering for the very people who are role models for the next generation, administrators/managers for other teams and potential benefactors or sponsors. By providing enjoyment in hockey for players of all ages and abilities, Masters hockey is retaining in the game a pool of men and women who are essential to the success of our sport and providing a fun and social way to keep competitive and active in a sport they love throughout their lives.
--- Facebook: Asociación Argentina de Hockey Masters y Grand Masters