| NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y.
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. Jan 19 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 League
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
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.
'ONE OF THE NICEST GAMES'
The NHL lockout delayed the start of the season - originally
scheduled for Oct. 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
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)