Ageless on the ice: Stanley skates to championship at 62
There aren’t many 62-year-olds playing ice hockey against 20-year-olds still in their prime. In fact, there aren’t many 62-year-olds that are playing the physically demanding sport of ice hockey at all. But not only is Selbyville resident Lee Stanley still lacing up his skates and heading out on the ice, he’s still helping his team win tournament championships.
Just last weekend, Stanley geared up with his sons, Matt, 24, and Jack, 21), and the rest of his Piney Orchard Men’s Hockey League team, the Bottom Line, to take down an upper-level team from Harrington 3-2 and win a tournament in Easton, Md.
“They were a stacked team,” said Stanley of the high-level of competition. “We faced an upper-level team with all younger players. Our average is probably 20 to 45, and then you plug me in at 62.”
“Everybody was excited, and it was unexpected because the [Harrington] Titans team was tough. We had no anticipation of taking them two games in a row.”
Though he admittedly may have lost some speed in comparison to his younger playing days, what Stanley’s game lacks physically, he’s able to make up for mentally through his more than 40 years of experience on the ice.
“I’m smarter than they are, but I’m slower than they are,” Stanley said, drawing the comparison between himself and his sons and college-aged teammates and opponents. “You know the positioning better. You know whether to go and what to do.” At this age, he said, “It’s all whether you can get there on time or not.”
In regards to stamina, Stanley can still keep up with his line for the whole game, but sometimes the team needs him to coach more than they need him to play, for their best shot at winning the game — which is the most important thing for the hockey veteran.
“I usually will play the whole first period and into the second,” he explained. “If we get into a real tight game, I usually just coach into the third period. Winning the game is more important to me than getting all my ice time.”
One would never know it from watching him play now, but Stanley didn’t get involved with either skating or ice hockey until he started working as a Zamboni driver for Chevy Chase Country Club, near where he grew up in Silver Spring, Md., at the age of 22. It was there that he took advantage of being able to skate for free and was exposed to the sport firsthand.
“A buddy of mine worked at Chevy Chase Country Club, and he got me a job driving the ‘Zam,’” he recalled of how he initially got involved with the sport. “I had never even been on ice skates, but working at an ice rink and skating six or seven days a week, your skating improves. During the day, when there was nothing to do, I would just go out and skate laps.”
After developing his skating, Stanley began helping out with coaching at the club when he was needed.
“Basically I was the ‘Zam’ driver, and if the coach didn’t show up, they ask you to come out and help with the coaching,” he explained. “You have the opportunity to skate at the lower-level practices for three or four hours a day, and I got good, having the opportunity to skate that much.”
It wasn’t long after that when Stanley began competing in local hockey leagues, getting his start with a team called the Blazers and playing for a few years before taking a five-year break to play softball. At the age of 30, however, Stanley again returned to the sport, playing in the North American Hockey League for the Assassins and even started coaching some Piney Orchard rec leagues.
When his three sons were old enough, Stanley allowed them to start skating, as well, but he wanted to make sure that they really wanted to play hockey first.
“I made them beg me to play hockey,” he explained. “I didn’t want to be a parent that made his kids play the sport. [It was] probably a combination of seeing me going off four or five times a week playing hockey, and my wife’s a big hockey fan so I guess they followed in my footsteps.”
While Stanley’s sons developed as players, he developed as a coach, continuing to move up and coach all the way to the high school level.
“Matt started skating when he was about 8, at the squirt level, and I coached him all the way through high school,” he said of his oldest son.
It was while coaching at Southern High School in Maryland that Stanley became known for “The Lee Fist,” a term coined by Southern High School head coach Jim Rose to call for Stanley to go out and pump up his players before games.
“In the lineups, everybody tapped fists instead of shaking hands,” he recalled. “I used to come up and give everybody encouragement to get them fired up instead of a handshake.”
As a coach, Stanley influenced not only his sons, but other players, as well, including his present-day teammate Travis Yatto.
“The one thing Travis remembers until today is I always told him to always keep your feet moving — to this day he remembers it and reminds me of it,” he said.
After coaching his son Matt from the day he first put on his skates to his final game as a senior in high school, Stanley opted to watch his son play collegiate hockey at UMBC from the bleachers, putting his faith in his son as a player and enjoying the game as a spectator, rather than continuing to coach him along.
“He heard enough coaching from me, and he had coaches there,” he said. “You can have too many coaches. They did a lot of traveling, but my wife and I made almost all his home games.”
After college, Matt Stanley went from being his father’s student to his teammate, with his younger brother Jack joining them, too, when he was old enough. Stanley’s youngest son, Sam, is anxiously awaiting the day he turns 18 and can join his brothers and his dad on the Bottom Line and help them continue to compete in tournaments like the one in Easton — in which Lee Stanley has been competing in since 1988.
“When they were old enough, anywhere I played, they came and played with me,” Stanley said of his two older sons. “Sam is impatiently waiting until he can play in the Easton tournament next year.”
One thing is for sure, though, Sam Stanley won’t have to wonder whether or not his dad will still be playing by the time he’s old enough to join the team. In fact, in Stanley’s 40-plus league, he says that there’s an 82-year-old who still suits up. So the way he sees it, he still has at least 20 years of playing left to enjoy.
“One of our guys is 82. He’s not real good, and he’s not real fast, but everybody cheers him on when he makes a good pass, so I said, ‘I got 20 more years.’”
In the nearer future, Stanley and the rest of his Bottom Line teammates will compete as the third seed in the Piney Orchard Men’s League tournament this weekend, fresh off their Easton tournament championship against some familiar opponents. The first seed in the tournament is 318, a team that the Bottom Line defeated 6-3 in Easton last Tuesday.
“We’ve got a pretty good shot at it,” he confidently stated. “We’re going to give them a run for their money.”
Right now, Stanley is splitting his time between his home in Selbyville and his home in West River, Md., which is more accessible to league play and ice rinks, with the closest hockey rinks to Selbyville being in Easton and Harrington. Stanley sees growth in the sport, however, and is hoping that, one day, it is embraced more by lower Sussex County.
“It’s grown vastly. When I first started in the ’70s, there were six or eight high school teams in the Washington area, and now there’s probably over 150,” he estimated. “Hockey’s gotten more popular coast to coast.”