When the Balmy Beach Old Boys play an away game, it’s far, far away.
This spring, the local old timers’ hockey team laced their skates in Italy, Austria and Slovakia.
It was the Old Boys’ 15th tour of Europe – a tradition that goes two ways. Over the years, teams from northern Italy, Austria, and Hungary have all flown to Toronto for a chance to play Balmy Beach on home turf.
“The bottom line is, they really want to beat the Canadians,” says Paul Babich, who has never missed a tour.
It all started in 1977, when the two year-old team flew to Zurich for the Old-Timers’ World Cup.
In most old timers’ leagues, players are 35 and older. Slap shots and body-checks are no-go’s, but challenging rivals to a post-game drink is a welcome part of the sport.
Still, a World Cup is a World Cup, even for old timers.
Babich said it was a thrill to play that first tournament in Zurich, but the team was disappointed to lose all three of their games – one to a Burlington team they played every couple weeks at home.
A decade later, the Old Boys returned to Europe, this time for an organized “Tour de France” with one-off games against fellow old-timers in Cholet, Poitiers, and Toulouse, and rounded off with a week of “R & R” in places like Monaco and Chamonix.
This time, the Old Boys hit their stride, winning two of their three games.
At home, the team had started playing in the weekly Thornhill Elite Old Timers League, and most also doubled as Friday nighters on Balmy Beach Club house teams.
They even picked up some former NHL players. Over the years, the team has seen the likes of Norm Ullman, Connie Broden, and Stan Weir.
Dave Norris, the current captain, is a former IHL pro who has the added distinction of being the oldest guy on the team.
Today, the Old Boys’ record in Europe stands at 41 wins, 26 losses, and 10 ties.
But winning isn’t nearly the best part, says Balmy Beach Club president Jake Lipsett, who has been organizing the tours with Paul Babich since 1989.
“You get to meet a lot of local people in smaller communities,” said Lipsett. “And all the players who still play at this level, the old-timer level, they’re here for exactly the same reason we are – they love hockey.”
Among Lipsett’s favourite tour memories are the three games the Old Boys played at St. Moritz – an outdoor Olympic rink built at the edge of a frozen lake and ringed by the Swiss Alps.
Another was forming ties with the old-timers team in Ritten, Italy.
“We’d asked them if we could get another game because we liked it there,” said Lipsett.
Instead, the Ritten team started a six-team tournament every other year because they knew Balmy Beach were coming back.
Called the Remo Cup, it’s held in honour of a former player on Italy’s Olympic team.
After losing just one of the tournament games this March, the Old Boys have now won it two years running. But Lipsett said the best part is just going back.
“It’s just a wonderful place,” he said. “It’s like going home, really.”