Spreading old, but inspiring, wings
THEY’RE APPROACHING THEIR 80S, BUT RICK BURT AND BILL BOYKO STILL PLAY HOCKEY EVERY WEEK
HE HEAVES his hockey bag over his shoulder and heads out of the rink into the frigid night air, Rick Burt wants to makes something clear.
“I’d rather this be a story about the Hamilton Old Wings than about a couple of old farts that play for them,” he says. Which would be fine if it weren’t for one thing. Burt, along with his longtime friend Bill Boyko,
are the Old Wings; the only two players from the original roster still suiting up for the local oldtimers’ team today.
So while this is a story about the Old Wings, it is also inescapably a story about Burt and Boyko. It starts more than 70 years ago.
Long before they were teammates, Burt and Boyko were opponents. As kids growing up in the city’s East End, they played against each other on outdoor rinks and at the “old green barn” on Barton Street that would later become the Hamilton Forum.
“I knew of him,” says Boyko, “and he knew of me.”
They loved the game and were good at it — Burt even played for the Detroit Red Wings’ Junior B affiliate in Burlington as a teenager.
But as the years passed, they got married, started families and got full-time jobs.
“It’s all about having fun. Who cares if we won or lost the game? It’s about being out there and being competitive. It’s the balance that keeps it all going.” RICK BURT
“Winning is a byproduct of having fun. If you win, that’s a bonus. If you lose, still have your fun.” BILL BOYKO
Life got in the way of sport and, for a while, they both gave up hockey.
It wasn’t just that they were busy. Neither Burt nor Boyko liked the “whack-em” leagues — the fullcontact, adult recreational loops in which there’s a good chance you’ll get your knee taken out when you chase a puck into the corner.
Ultimately, though, after life slowed down a little and non-contact oldtimers hockey — reserved for the over-35 set — became an option, the game lured them back.
BURT AND BOYKO, by now acquaintances for a couple of decades, got to know each other better when they joined the RNHL — the Regional Non-contact Hockey League — and were picked to play for a travelling tournament team.
A few guys quit and it didn’t survive, which is when Burt, Boyko and the other holdovers left the league to form their own squad.
The Old Wings — which borrow their name and colour scheme from the Hamilton Red Wings — were officially born in 1982.
The idea was to create something that was more than a hockey team. In the early days, especially, the players’ wives and kids would join them at games and tournaments. There were family skates, Christmas parties and cottage weekends. There still are.
Burt chokes up as he talks about these outings. They remind him of his first wife, Margaret, who passed away four years after the team was founded. It was an awful, difficult time, and the Old Wings helped him through it.
“When my wife died, I had a social life,” the 79-year-old says. “When she was sick for a few years, I had a social life.”
Boyko, now 76, understands. He’s going through the same thing with his own wife now.
Each Thursday, he says, his daughter comes and stays with her at their home in Binbrook so he can come into Hamilton for the team’s weekly game (the Old Wings play at the Wentworth Arenas on Wilson Street). It’s only for a couple of hours, but it frees up his mind.
“Other than that it’s 24-7,” he says. The team has become a true family affair over the years. Both Burt’s and Boyko’s sons are on the 16-man roster now. Boyko’s son-in-law, too. Their grandkids, many now adults, take part in occasional family scrimmages.
No one person runs the team, and the work is divvied up. There’s a beer guy — that’s the most important job — and a schedule guy and a guy who takes care of the lineup. There’s even a social co-ordinator.
The players decide by vote who makes the Old Wings. No one has ever been voted off the team, although several veterans have moved on. Some retired, others found the hockey too competitive and a few got too sick to play. One died.
“If we need a player or two, we’ll have a few guys out and it just depends on how they interact with the rest of the guys in our dressing room,” Boyko explains. If someone comes in — “Oh, let’s hustle some chicks tonight” — they don’t stand a chance of making the cut.
Boyko says the type of individuals they attract “with all the same likes” has been key to the team’s ongoing success.
When it comes to their professions, the Old Wings are a diverse mix.
Boyko, for instance, is a retired businessman, while Burt is a former teacher and entrepreneur who has developed everything from automated car washes to the live-fire target systems used by the FBI.
Their teammates are accountants, lawyers, social workers and glass repair experts, just to name a few.
They don’t talk about work, though, or money, or wins and losses.
“If you were in that dressing room, you wouldn’t hear about the game tonight,” says Burt. (For what it’s worth, the Old Wings won 4-3 and Burt and Boyko — who still play in the weekly games but move behind the bench for tournaments — had no trouble keeping up with players half their age.)
Instead, Burt says, they joke, maybe take aim at someone who took a spill out on the ice.
“It’s all about having fun,” he adds. “Who cares if we won or lost the game? It’s about being out there and being competitive. It’s the balance that keeps it all going.”
Boyko chimes in. “Winning is a byproduct of having fun. If you win, that’s a bonus. If you lose, still have your fun.”
BOYKO SAYS this often — three times, actually, over the course of an hour-long conversation — but it’s no mere aphorism.
Spend a few minutes watching him and Burt and their boys trading barbs and reminiscing over cold cans of Molson Canadian in the bowels of the retro-looking rink and it quickly becomes apparent:
They find humour in everything. Even the ugly stuff.
Boyko brings up the time one of their players “dropped dead on the ice.” He was in cardiac arrest, he explains. The good news is there was a doctor at the rink — he started chest compressions and their teammate recovered.
“We lost a lot of ice time,” quips Burt.
With he and Boyko both inching toward octogenarian status, it’s natural to wonder if they plan to hang up their skates any time soon. The answer — even from Burt, who is due to have lung surgery in the near future — is a resounding “no.”
“I’m probably going to have to take half a year off,” he explains.
“They’ve got to crack me open and get into my lungs ...
“Right now, I struggle to breathe a little bit. But if I can breathe a little better, I’ll being making those young kids look like a bunch of dummies out there.”
Burt is only partially joking. While he understands his days of playing competitive hockey will eventually end, he still intends to be back on the ice after the operation. He’ll play with the Old Wings until his body tells him otherwise, and after that he’ll play shinny.
For him, it’s not action but inaction that’s scary.
“We’ve always done something,” he says. “If you quit, anyone this old will tell you you’ll probaby seize up.” Boyko nods.
Hockey is good for the body and good for the mind, he says, and as long as his legs are still working and the Old Wings will have him, he plans to keep playing.
“It’s been a good life, and if something were to happen, drop dead on the ice just like that,” he says as he slaps the wall.
“So be it.”
Bill Boyko, 76, left, and Rick Burt, 79, are members of the Hamilton Old Wings. They started the team and play with their sons now.
From left, Bill Boyko Jr., Bill Boyko Sr., Noah Kauth and son-in-law Scott Kauth.