Ralph Herda was just one goal shy of scoring his first career hat trick.
His teammates were adamant about him reaching that milestone. In his 60s at the time, Herda was long overdue.
“It was the third period and we stuck him out there just to try to get another goal,” Herda’s longtime teammate Jim Shortreed recalled. “Sure enough, he scored the third goal. I just remember, I have never ever seen anybody smile so big as when he got that third goal. Skating back to the bench, you could tell it just made his week, potentially his month.”
That smile said it all. Herda’s passion for hockey was shining through.
Herda didn’t start playing the sport until he turned 55. For years, Herda and his friend, Randy Jones, watched their two sons play youth hockey in Edina, Minnesota. Herda didn’t know much about the fast-paced sport, but it piqued his interest.
“We just had so much time in rinks and it seemed like so much fun,” Herda said. “After [our sons] got done, I sort of talked to Randy and said, ‘You know what, let’s sign up for an adult hockey league. Let’s try this. Let’s do it.’”
The two fifty-somethings signed up to play in the enormous Adult Hockey Association (AHA), a part of USA Hockey and Minnesota Hockey, in the Twin Cities, where teams compete all around the metro area.
“The first time I had hockey equipment on was I bought some and went to get evaluated,” Herda said. “I remember thinking, how in the [heck] do you move around the ice with all this stuff on? I felt kind of like the Michelin Man with breezers and everything. All the stuff like that was brand new.”
Herda skated a little bit as a kid in Chicago and last was on the ice in figure skates in college. But 30-35 years had passed since that last time lacing them up.
When Herda started skating in the AHA, he latched onto the Northern Gators with Jones and Shortreed. The team has changed over the years and now a few of Herda’s son’s friends are skating with the Northern Gators.
“It’s just been an incredibly great, fun experience,” said Herda, who played on the Northern Gators when it won the 2017 Winter League C3 Tier championship and the Duluth Classic Tier 4 championship that same year. “The exercise is unbelievable. The game is fascinating and fun. It’s fun to watch; it’s fun to play.”
Jones recently moved to Charleston, South Carolina, so he isn’t able to play on a regular basis with Herda. But Jones cherished the moments he has had on the ice with his friend.
“We went out and played hockey all the time together — we did it just about every week,” Jones said. “It was just great to spend time with somebody and get out and get some good exercise and have some fun together.”
The AHA sets up its league with levels based strictly on skill and not by age. Herda started out playing in D2, which is the lowest flight, and over the years has moved up a number of levels to C1.
On the weekend of Sept. 24, Herda will play in an AHA tournament with the Northern Gators for the last time. He’s planning to drop down a level so he can still be a “good teammate.”
“I recognize the skill level that these guys are at — like I said, there’s no age limit — so most of these guys on this team are in their 30s and 40s,” Herda said. “They can keep going like that, but I need to cool my jets.”
Sacrificing his fun and enjoyment for the greater good of the team is extremely telling of Herda, noted Shortreed.
“He’s just a personable kind of guy. He’s been with the team for a long time, so he knows everybody,” Shortreed said. “I think it’s really selfless of him to go away from a team that he’s been with forever and still want to play, but drop down a level. That says a lot about his character.”
Herda wants to continue playing hockey for as long as he can, because, in all honesty, he’s only been on the ice for the last 13 years. When he picked up the game as a 55-year-old, he had high expectations and he said the game has really exceeded what he had hoped to get from it.
“I’d seen what it had done for the kids and the fun and exercise and camaraderie and everything else. I think this has been that plus more,” Herda said. “It’s far and above what I ever thought I’d get out of it.”
Shortreed called Herda the “Webster Dictionary” example that it’s never too late in a person’s life to pick up a stick and start playing hockey.
“I’m 55 right now and I’m thinking about hanging my skates up pretty soon, and he started playing at the time of my age right now,” Shortreed said. “That’s pretty impressive.”
“It’s not too late at all,” Herda said. “When it’s flighted and everything, it doesn’t matter. It’s like golf, you get a handicap or you play from different tees. It’s very easy to find a level or find a mixture where you can participate, have fun, learn some things and have a good time.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.