The Good Old Hockey Guy
Al Waltho may have replaced two hips and a knee, but he’s not quite ready to hang up his skates.
In the chill twilight of an empty arena last February, Al skates in slow circles, round and round, warming up before a game he won’t be playing.
Al is Alan Waltho. He’s 75. One knee and both his hips are new. Al may be finished with hockey, or the game may be finished with him, but very early on a frigid Sunday morning, he has driven down to Orangeville from Dundalk to skate alone before the regular game. Round and round, circling a hope of return.
It’s an hour before game time, half an hour before Al’s teammates, his friends of decades, will straggle in, carrying well-worn bags of hockey equipment and drive-through-window coffees. They’ll wave and smile, genuinely happy to see him. Al will smile back, raise his stick in salute and continue slowly circling, content.
Born in England, Al was raised in Montreal, where he played hockey on bitterly cold outdoor rinks, always wearing the bleu-blanc-et-rouge of his beloved Canadiens. He married Brenda, his high school sweetheart, and moved to Orangeville.
A career selling telecom equipment took him all over Southwestern Ontario and Manitoba. He and Brenda raised six kids: Derek, Jeff, Jason, Brian, Karen and Heather. The girls figure skated, the boys played hockey. Everyone got skating stuff for Christmas. Life intruded. Al didn’t play the game for years.
But Al was at the rinks, in the stands, behind the benches and on the ice with his boys for practices. There, he met other dads who played “old-timer” games, and in his mid-30s, Al resumed playing. And he continued for four decades, playing forward with the Rusty Blades.
“I could play pretty good, I guess,” Al recalls with a little pride. “They say I was a pretty good stickhandler. The skills stay, but I’ve slowed down. The last few years haven’t been too good, because of my hips and knee. It is learning to skate all over again. You don’t quite move the same. You try to do the same things, but you can’t. You lose confidence. You have doubts. I think it’s fear. You feel … fragile.”
The soundtrack of recreational pickup hockey is more than the scrape of a skate blade biting into ice, the clack of a pass “on the tape,” the boom of a puck off the boards. It is also the good-natured shouts of derision from the benches, the ribbing in the dressing rooms, the banter at breakfast after the game.
There is an expression in hockey, “good in the room.” Al is good in the room. A greeter, a joker, a raconteur, a fixture.
On this day last February, “the room” is dressing room 10, Red Rink, Alder Street Arena. It’s an unesthetic cinder-block rectangle filled with exploded bags of hockey gear, hooks hung with street clothes and men in various stages of undress. Al, wearing baggy jeans and a Leafs’ cap, stands smiling, gap-toothed, in its doorway.
On the bench along the wall to his right sit Jeremy, Mark, Dave, Rick, Pete, one of the Darrells (the other is Daryl) and Rob (never Bobby) Orr. The order rarely varies. Dave sits in “Al’s spot.”
“Where’s your valet?” Al quips with a wink. Someone seated along the other wall, red faced from the exertion of tying stiff, new waxed laces retorts, and talk in the room turns animatedly to the merits of waxed versus cotton laces, the Leafs, Mulmur snowmobile trails, and Al’s rehabilitation and return.
“How’s it going, Al? You comin’ back?” goes the chorus. “It’s coming along,” says Al amiably. “I’m takin’ it easy. We’ll see how it goes.” Et cetera. Everyone cares, but they’ve heard it before. There’s unspoken hope – and a hint of unexpressed sadness.
Players, divided into teams wearing light or dark jerseys, file out of the room. Al follows, joining his teammates on the players’ bench. Behind the bench, that is. He pats shoulders, keeps score, joins in yelling good-natured insults: “Hey, Daryl, pick it up, will ya!” Al dishes it out. He can take it, too. Always with a smile.
Amaranth’s Les Loftus, now in his mid-70s, founded the Rusty Blades back when he and the others were young – about 40 years ago. Al, whose son Jason played soccer with Les’s boys, joined nearly a decade later, though neither he nor Les is sure of the exact year.
Les recalls a younger Al as “not the fastest skater, but someone who could fool you with his stickhandling.” But more important, as always being “very amiable, very social, always ready for a laugh.”
While lauding Al as a fine fellow both on and off the ice, when pressed, Les expresses uncertainty about whether his friend will make it back. “I remember the last time he was out there, he was very slow. I think he’s lost a few steps. I think that’s probably what is keeping him from coming back.”
“A gentleman and a gentle man” is how Grand Valley resident and teammate Daryl Blakely, 56, sums up Al. “The game has gotten a little quicker since he left. New guys. But they’re a good group. Everyone would welcome him back.”
The other Darrell – Darrell Arenburg, 59 – of Orangeville agrees. “I knew Al. I played with Al. He loved the game of hockey. It was never about ‘me,’ it was about everybody else.”
Darrell is surprised when it’s pointed out that he’s speaking of his linemate in the past tense.
“I admire the guy,” he says sincerely, switching to the present. “I see him out there skating, testing his body, getting reassurance if he can. If he gets healthy, there is nothing preventing him from coming back. Al still has a place on the team. He’s been here a lot longer than many of us. He has that right. I’d like to see him come back.”
The end of a lifelong pastime and joy comes to us all, be it suddenly or gradually, and whether it is decided by us – or for us. We can delay it, kid ourselves, maybe kid others, but it will come. Meanwhile, there is denial, hope, stubbornness.
And love. Widowed, Al remarried six years ago and moved to Dundalk with Bonnie, his second wife. Bonnie couldn’t be more supportive, optimistic, or charmingly southern. A Canadian, she spent 43 years living in the Carolinas and retained the warmth. “That would be the most wonderful thing if he could play until he’s 80,” she says. “I’d be tickled to death! Al’s awesome!”
Les admits to being in denial about the approaching end of his own playing days. “You let your mind tell you, ‘I’m too old for this.’ But as long as you’re enjoying anything, you’re not too old for it. There are some really good skaters out there, younger guys. I see them coming at me and I know I don’t have a hope of stopping them. But I enjoy the trying.”
It’s the same for all of them – dreading the day age, injury or pride will force them to stop. A day that may no longer be so distant.
“The end is not in my mind yet,” Daryl B says firmly. “My mind will tell me to go on. My body will tell me to stop. I’ll push. I’ll push right till the end. I’ll try until I can’t tie my skates.”
Like Al, the other Darrell – Darrell A – has undergone two hip replacements. “I’ve played nervous since then. I love the game of hockey, but I know there will be a day when I’m done. Al probably knows the same. Meanwhile, we’re aging gracefully. Together.”
Al played his last hockey game more than a year ago. No one is playing this winter. Not yet, and probably not at all. Pandemic restrictions have closed local arenas to games.
But Al abides. This gentleman, now 76 and an old but not-yet-former hockey player, continues to skate during the pandemic, calling ahead and booking ice time at the arena “to keep in touch with the ice.” With each outing, his confidence grows, and he looks forward to sharing the room and the ice, as well as the breakfasts, the kibitzing and the camaraderie, with his teammates. And if not with the Rusty Blades, he says, then he will sign up for old-timers’ shinny.
“Some of the guys think I will come back,” he says. “Maybe they’re just being polite. Some have assumed I won’t. But my hockey bag is packed and ready to go. I’ll be out there one of these days. I’m ready now.”