Millions of young Canadians would love the opportunity to play hockey. Many of them start out in an organized minor hockey league at local arenas or trying their hand at shinny on a frozen pond.
Then there are people like Gren Coombe, 59, of Vancouver. A self-confessed "huge hockey fan" all his life, for a variety of reasons, didn't take up the game until he was 28.
Born in Comox in 1949, this baby boomer moved to Vancouver a couple of years later and grew up in the Unbar region of the city. His father had served in the Forces during the Second World War before settling down to work in the automotive service industry. Gren was an only child, and since his mother also worked, he spent a lot of time playing outside with his friends in the neighbourhood. Gren recalls that only one family owned a television when he was growing up; the boy could only invite one friend in at a time to watch it with him.
"He would pick the leaves off a dandelion to select who would get to watch," says Gren. "It was the only fair way."
Gren was always athletically gifted, but the only organized sport he played was soccer. He credits his father's British background for this.
"My parents both enjoyed hockey," says Gren, "but they felt the game was too dangerous and never signed me up to play on a team."
Though he did very little ice-skating at Kerrisdale Arena as a child, he played a lot of street hockey with his friends. He grew up a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. When his family finally bought a TV, he watched Hockey Night in Canada regularly on Saturday nights with his parents. When the Vancouver Canucks entered the league in 1970, Gren's allegiance changed and he remains a Canucks fan to this day.
At 23, Gren started his own business.
"I inherited a green thumb from my parents," he says, "and during my high school years, I worked in the summers for a gardening company. I decided to start my own gardening and landscaping business, went out and found a client and never looked back. I never advertised. I grew the business all by word of mouth. I am now semi-retired and work as much as I want."
Once the business was established, Gren married and the children soon followed: two sons and then a daughter. Not wanting his children to miss the opportunities that had passed him by, Gren enrolled his first son in minor hockey at age five.
"That introduced me to coaching," he says. "I never thought I would be a coach, but I met one of the other coaches and got involved from there. You know, some people are better at teaching than others. I discovered I could teach and I enjoyed it."
Over the next couple of decades, Gren spent countless hours at the rink coaching both of his sons' hockey teams. In the spring and summer, he would switch to coaching his daughter's softball teams. Gren also served as coach for the senior boys' ice hockey team at Kitsilano High School when his boys were 17 and 18. The highlight of his coaching career took place during this time.
"My younger son was in Grade 12. We went over to a tournament on Vancouver Island and we won that tournament, playing against and beating the best teams. Our kids will never forget that tournament. We played good, hard, clean hockey and won despite very tough odds. My older son also coached that team so it was a real family win."
From coaching minor hockey, it was only a short step to joining the board of directors for the Vancouver Thunderbird Minor Hockey Association, then the largest minor hockey association in the province. He served on the board for more than 15 years, including stints as Division Manager, Equipment Manager and Association President for three years.
"It was a big time commitment but at the same time a wonderful opportunity," says Gren. "My social life came out of hockey. Between minor hockey and now senior hockey, it largely shapes my social life. Hockey is huge. It's amazing the number of things that spiral out of hockey. We go on summer outings like hiking and canoeing with those same people and have made so many friendships."
In 1977, a family moved in across the lane from Gren's childhood home and, when he was visiting his parents, he met the man. They struck up a fast friendship as they discovered mutual interests, and remain great friends to this day. This neighbour asked Gren if he would like to play some hockey and, though he had never played a game of ice hockey in his life, he quickly agreed.
Excited to be on the ice with the other "beer league" players at the Thunderbird Arena at UBC, Gren quickly realized he was not the star of the game.
"The first time I played with them, I knew right away that I was a really horrible player," he says. "But it didn't matter because I was trying my best and really enjoyed being with the guys playing hockey."
In those days, these twice-a-week pick-up games did not have goalies. The players needed to hit the posts in order to get credit for a goal. Eventually, goalies got in on the action, and Gren found himself strapping on the pads to play in net for some games. And though he danced between the pipes for quite a few games, he found out that in order to play the position, "you really need to enjoy facing the puck." From his inauspicious debut, Gren is now not only a good skater and adequate player, but organizes and runs the beer league games at UBC.
When the rink at UBC underwent renovations a couple of years ago, in preparation for the upcoming Olympic Games, Gren and his fellow players were forced to look elsewhere to get their hockey fix. A brief search brought them to the Adult Safe Hockey League (ASHL), a league of many divisions and categories run out of the Eight Rinks complex in Burnaby. They ran two teams the first season they played and continue in the league today playing as the Done Guns. The team competes in the Over-40 division, despite the fact that most of the players are in their mid to late 50s. They were forced to compete in that division because neither of the teams' goalies has turned 50 yet. But despite being more senior than the players they are competing against, the Done Guns are competitive. "It's been a lot of hard work, but we are doing quite well," says Gren.
As he did with the teams at UBC, Gren manages the Done Guns. He makes sure there are enough players in each position for all the games, and organizes a couple of team bonding parties each year. Once they got involved in the ASHL, the team realized the game was much different from what they were used to. "We have learned a lot playing hockey at Eight Rinks with actual referees. An organized league was a real learning experience for us since half our team hadn't played any organized hockey before becoming involved with this league."
For his own part, Gren describes himself as "A defensive kind of player. I've been a defense man since I started playing, and when you play defense that many years, you become a stay-at-home defense man. I'd like to be more offensive-minded now that I am not such a bad skater. I know what to do when playing the game thanks to my years of coaching, but because my skating is not as good as those who grew up playing the game, I can't always get where I want to go."
This is a gentler game than that played by the younger generation. There are no body checks or contact allowed and slap shots are strictly banned. Aside from that, however, it remains the same great team sport. One thing about hockey that doesn't change with age is the dressing room banter. According to Gren, "We are all ragging on each other, playing little jokes, having fun. You have to stay on the ball in the room or you are going to get it."
It's no longer an impossible dream for older Canadians to continue playing ice hockey. Whether you are five or 65, you can still suit up and chase the puck across the frozen surface. One of the players Gren plays with at UBC is over 70. Something to which Gren aspires.
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