Spreading old, but in­spir­ing, wings

THEY’RE AP­PROACH­ING THEIR 80S, BUT RICK BURT AND BILL BOYKO STILL PLAY HOCKEY EV­ERY WEEK

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BE­FORE

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.

TERI PECOSKIE

COUR­TESY BILL BOYKO

From left, Bill Boyko Jr., Bill Boyko Sr., Noah Kauth and son-in-law Scott Kauth.

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