The Sonoma County Winos, a senior hockey squad, are steady contenders at the annual Santa Rosa gathering of amateurs passionate for the game.
Players might not be as fast as in their youth, yet skill and smarts promise to make for clean games and happy fans at Snoopy's 38th Annual Senior World Hockey Tournament, here in Santa Rosa.
"You can see that the talent was there. Some of these teams will play a really smart game," said Kenny Martin, with the Winos. "Some of the oldest players are raising the bar for the rest of us."
More than 60 teams from 13 states and three Canadian Provinces converge on Redwood Empire Ice Arena beginning Friday for nine days of near nonstop hockey.
An added bonus — games are free.
With each team playing four games over more than a week, players and families reunite and take in wine country, the river region and coast. Wednesday's all-day barbecue is a favorite draw at the tournament.
"It's a great event. The town kind of rolls out the red carpet. Everyone is super friendly," said Howie Bloxam, captain of the Red Barn Ice Dogs out of Long Beach, where he owns a pet food company.
Both camaraderie and competitive play keep the brackets packed with teams.
"The word of mouth of the tournament and the experience of the competitiveness is spreading. There are some new teams filtering in," said Mike Kovanis, the ice arena's hockey director. "We have kind of a cult following."
Senior hockey means players ages 40 and older. The tournament has added several divisions in the 70s, reflecting the aging players.
Still, plenty of new players fill rosters each year to keep teams coming back.
Martin, who grew up playing at Redwood Empire Ice Arena, has teamed with some of the Winos for more than three decades.
"Most of the guys are laid back. People are out to have fun," said Martin, a Santa Rosa builder. "Everybody likes to win, though. Nobody loses their desire to win, whatever your age."
The style of hockey is decidedly gentlemanly. There is no checking, and slap shots are not allowed.
"At the end of the day we've got to go back to work Monday morning," Bloxam said. "Most of the teams, we've all been playing together. So the hockey is a lot of fun as well."
With a range of skating strengths, senior hockey places a premium on teamwork. At whatever age level, though, the game is well paced.
Teams in the top 40- and 45-and-over divisions can draw a couple of hundred fans.
"It's almost like a fantasy camp. To actually show up and have that many in the stands, it gives you a little more drive," Martin said.
Always one of the top teams in the premier division, the Ice Dogs feature many Canadian natives who play the game with flair.
One of the tournament's marquee matchups is in the 40A division:the Ice Dogs going against the United Nations Black team, whose home is Redwood Empire Ice Arena. This year's schedule has them meeting near the tournament's end.
One player of note on the Ice Dogs is Jamie Kompon, a Canadian who is hockey royalty of sorts. A longtime National Hockey League assistant coach, Kom-pon has been part of the past two Stanley Cup championship teams, with the Los Angeles Kings and now as a Chicago Blackhawks assistant.