In the Forty-Niners Hockey Club, friendships matter more than championships.
“It’s the ultimate pond hockey,” said Steve Carlson of Anchorage.
He should know. The 69-year-old lifelong Alaskan got on the ice when he was 6, played at Dimond High in the late 1960s and hasn’t stopped chasing the puck with his buddies since.
Created for men over the age of 49, the club has no teams, few rules and no refs. The icing on the cake?
“We don’t keep score,” said 82-year-old Jimmy Reese.
But they do keep skating.
“Hockey’s a good workout,” said Reese, a retired truck driver.
The club was created in 2000 so aging players — the average age is about 65 — wouldn’t have to skate with young hotheads who don’t play well with others.
Its members come from all walks of life — plenty of blue-collar workers, city and state employees, coaches, a doctor, fisherman, dentist, lawyer, pilot, judge, teacher and one guy who allegedly wore a skate over his ankle bracelet for a while.
“We don’t do background checks,” Doug Webster said while pulling on his gear in the locker room at the O’Malley Sports Complex.
The experience and maturity of the players means respect for the game takes precedence over egos. Games feel like old-time hockey at its best, the way kids play when there are no adults around.
With teams determined by the traditional method of throwing sticks in the middle of the ice and dividing them equally at random, games begin quietly, without whistle-blowing refs.
Offsides and icing are called by participants. With no faceoffs, perpetual motion is the norm.
Since the club has enough members for two games simultaneously, it rents both sheets of ice. One rink is for the guys feeling their oats. The other is for the fellas who are feeling their age. Careers are extended by allowing players to age gracefully while not slowing down the action for everyone.
There’s a waiting list to get in, and there’s more to it than just waiting your turn. Hopefuls have to pay their dues.
Sweat equity is the currency. Dedication is noted as well.
For those who want to be considered, pickup games in the summer and general reputation weigh heavily in being invited. Regulars in the summer who are deemed a good fit maintain their eligibility.
When someone decides to step away from the club, a wait-lister gets the call.
The 49ers have a committee that considers prospective members. It doesn’t matter if you’re the mayor or a millionaire. How you handle yourself on the ice has more to do with acceptance than who you are or how you stickhandle.
The number fluctuates, but about 75 players are on the club roster.
Carlson, one of the club’s founders, said the group doesn’t take itself too seriously, as illustrated by an email used to welcome new members:
“With diminished skills and/or speed, you have demonstrated your ability to play down to our level. You are age-appropriate and marginal competence is all that we are looking for. That being said, the membership committee has selected you in the 1st round of the supplemental draft.”
The roster is loaded with Alaska hockey heavyweights — Brush Christiansen, Dennis Sorenson, Lee Karabelnikoff and Ray Reekie, to name a few.
Christiansen, the UAA Seawolves head coach for 17 seasons, appreciates the club’s spirit and camaraderie.
"It’s strictly a fun league … there’s no fighting going on,” said Christiansen, a 49er since its early days.
“If you do happen to hit a guy with a stick or something, you stop right away and you make sure he’s OK, tell him you’re sorry about that. We’re not out there to hurt anyone, and everyone knows it.”
Postgame proceeds predictably.
“Afterward, the beer is great and the stories get better every year,” Christiansen said.
And then there is Reese, who for six decades has been playing at a level that few reach.
His high school team, the Thief River Falls Prowlers, won the Minnesota state championship in 1956. A book — “River of Champions,” a “Bad News Bears”-meets-“Hoosiers” story — was written about the team.
In the late 1950s, when Reese was a young man, there were only six teams in the NHL. Canadians dominated the lineups. Guys from small-town Minnesota weren’t top prospects, but Reese had a couple of chances.
He was once approached about trying out for the Chicago Blackhawks, and another time he was offered help with getting a shot at the NHL.
“I had a crack at it twice, and I didn’t take 'em,” he said.
Instead, he chose Alaska.
“I could make more in three months working construction than most of those guys,” he said of NHL players.
So for 60 years, Reese built a reputation as a gritty goal-scorer in the 49th state.
Once when an opponent used his stick with a little too much enthusiasm, Reese grabbed it and snapped it against the boards.
Reese’s brother, Ronald “Cookie” Reese, was also a longtime player in Anchorage, and the two shared more than a last name.
“If you wanted to give him some dirt, he’d give it right back," Reese said. "I guess I was the same way.”
According to Steve MacSwain, a former East High Thunderbird who played professionally for 13 years, Reese’s toughness, longevity and all-around ability make him “the Gordie Howe of Alaska hockey.”
Fast forward to 2018, and Reese was still being recruited.
After getting noticed at a seniors tournament in the Lower 48, Reese and fellow 49er Frank Nosek were asked to play for a U.S. team that took on Canada in a tournament for players over 80. The game-winning goal came off Reese’s stick in a shootout.
Stakes aren’t quite so high in the Forty-Niners Hockey Club.
The 49ers, who usually play Mondays and Thursdays, aren’t competing for their country. But they have their pride. No one comes off the ice without working up a sweat.
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The Forty-Niners Hockey Club