For 10 days this month, the parking lot of Snoopy’s Home Ice became a reunion spot for families and long-lost friends from around the country.
Dropping by the cooling asphalt any night of the week during the Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament, one would find a group of people gathered around the rear end of a car loaded with drinks and snacks, or sitting in camping chairs next to a group of recreational vehicles.
Sipping beers or eating snacks, players were discussing their latest matches; reconnecting with teammates, family members and past rivals; or planning a visit to a local winery or golf course the next day.
Brian Macdonald, a 79-year-old hockey player who has come to the tournament for 40 years, called the post-game tailgate celebration an integral part of the tournament.
In comparison to professional hockey—fast-paced (players’ skating speeds top 20 miles per hour, and shots on goal sometimes reach over 100 miles per hour) and brutal (despite penalties, fist fights are still a part of National Hockey League games)—the Snoopy’s tournament is a mild affair.
At the tournament, body contact is discouraged and players are not allowed to make slapshots, a high-speed shot on goal in which the puck lifts off the ice.
Snoopy’s Home Ice programming director Blake Johnson says, “The hockey you’ll see at the tournament is a very gentlemanly version of the game.”
Johnson says this style of play has been part of the tournament’s DNA since “Peanuts” comic strip creator Charles Schulz founded it in 1975. Until 2019, when Snoopy’s added hockey glass around the rink, these rules were necessary to protect players and audience alike.
While competitors are friendly off the ice, the “gentlemanly” hockey on display is still a high-adrenaline sport to watch, attracting more than 1,100 players from all over the U.S. and Canada. The players in the tournament range from age 40 to 90-something and from newcomers to retired NHL pros. Teams are split into divisions by age and self-attested skill level.
Macdonald’s team, the Nashville Blues, offers a good cross section of the tournament—anchored by a few players who have attended for decades, some with professional hockey backgrounds, but increasingly populated by a new, slowly-diversifying generation of players. The 79-year-old plays on the team with his son, Brian Jr., 58, and daughter Lynn, 55.
These days, the Macdonalds travel to Santa Rosa from Alabama, Los Angeles and New York, respectively. As a family, they’ve played at five or six Snoopy’s tournaments. They’re on a Nashville, Tennessee team because the senior Macdonald once lived and played in Nashville for 11 years, where he met teammate Danny Geoffrion, who has hockey in his blood.
Now 65, Geoffrion, who played professionally from 1978-1983, is a member of the first four-generation NHL family ever. His grandfather, Howie Morenz, a star from the early 20th century, was reportedly nicknamed the “Mitchell Meteor.” His father, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, is credited with inventing the slapshot. His son, Blake Geoffrion, played on the Nashville Predators and Montreal Canadiens. Today, Danny Geoffrion organizes tournaments around the country.
Asked about the appeal of the tournament, players were effusive about the uniqueness of the rink and the tight bonds they form with fellow players and lovers of the sport.
“I go to about eight tournaments a year, and this is the best,” said Brian Macdonald Sr. before taking the ice on Friday night, facing off against a team from Portland, Oregon.
Part of the appeal is the non-violent culture: “When Schultz was alive and he ran it, if you did anything other than play hockey out on that ice, you never came back… Yeah, some guys go back and forth verbally, but by and large, everybody out there respects everybody. They have a real good handle on what should be done when you’re on the ice,” Macdonald said.
While the love and camaraderie at the Snoopy’s tournament is evident, so too is the sport’s homogeneity; the vast majority of players at Snoopy’s Senior Tournament are white men.
Asked about this lack of diversity, players offered a few possible explanations. In places like the Bay Area where ice is not naturally occurring, players need to have had some exposure to hockey and make a considerable effort to seek the sport out.
Adult matches are often held late at night, equipment is costly and clunky, and, according to Brian Cronin, a 53-year-old player from San Francisco, ice rental fees for a single game can run $40 per player at Bay Area rinks. At one game per week, that’s $2,080 in local ice fees alone each year.
There’s also the initial exposure factor. Charles Schulz, for instance, was a Minnesota transplant who played on ice ponds as a child before moving to Sebastopol in 1958. Indeed, without Schulz’s quirky largess, Cronin said that it’s highly unlikely that Santa Rosa would have a rink at all. In 1969, when the rink opened, Sonoma County had a population of approximately 200,000. Along the West Coast, Snoopy’s Home Ice remains the only rink between San Francisco and Medford, Oregon, according to Johnson, the Snoopy’s programming director.
Many now-local players at the tournament got their start as children growing up in a place with a stronger hockey culture, like the midwest, northeast or Canada. However, California teams have been a part of the NHL since the 1960s, and more locals flock to the sport each year. California-based players said the numbers are shifting, with younger players in the Golden State increasingly finding the sport at local rinks. Snoopy’s Ice Rink, for instance, hosts several teams for younger players.
Also growing is hockey’s popularity among women. The number of women players registered with USA Hockey has been climbing steadily for the past decade, growing from 65,700 in the 2012-13 season to 87,891 in the 2021-22 season, a 34% increase. While the total number is still a relatively small section of the 547,429 total players registered with USA Hockey in 2021-22, the upward trend is clear.
In the Snoopy’s league, where players are all above 40, tournament organizers said that only about a dozen of the approximately 1,100 players (just above 1%) at this year’s tournament were women.
While Snoopy’s would like to attract more women, the tournament’s co-ed structure has been an impediment because some women players prefer to only play against other women, instead of teams composed of mostly men.
“I’m thrilled to set up a women’s only division next year because every single year there’s somebody that reaches out to me and says, ‘Hey, I want to bring a team. Do you have a women’s division?’” Johnson said.
The women players who do compete at Snoopy’s are used to playing with men. Lynn Macdonald, for instance, is the only woman on the Nashville Blues and the only woman in her league back in New York.
“I play in an over-50 men’s league back in New York, and the guys are just so nice. They’re really supportive of [having a woman playing],” she said.
Leaving the locker room after the Blues’ Friday-night game, Lynn Macdonald briefly met Jillian Rainville, one of four women on the Wile E. Coyote team from the Sacramento area, which has a thriving women’s hockey scene.
At home in Roseville, Rainville is a team captain of Pandora, a women’s team founded in 2009 which is part of an eight-team women’s league. The team has also participated in the Women and Wine Tournament, a women-only competition in Vacaville.
Rainville, 58, hadn’t heard of Johnson’s plans to set up a women’s division at next year’s tournament, but was immediately supportive.
“I’d be very interested in coming if they do that,” she said. “We have a lot of networking amongst all the teams from Reno, Tahoe, Portland and the Bay Area. The Bay Area has a huge women’s contingent that plays regularly. It’s just a little harder for us to travel from Sacramento,” Rainville said.
If they’re fixated enough, some senior players manage to keep playing for decades. Without all of the bashing and brawling associated with professional hockey, several players, including a retired general care doctor from Colorado, said that the sport is less impactful on aging joints than off-ice sports.
At 79 years old, the Nashville Blues’ Brian Macdonald is almost two decades shy of the oldest player in the league’s history.
That honorific goes to Mark Sertich, a Minnesotan who became a friend and Diamond Icers teammate of Schulz through decades of competition in the Snoopy’s Senior tournament. In his mid-90s, Sertich set the Guinness world record for oldest ice hockey player, then broke his own record twice.
Sertich played hockey in Duluth until he was 98, while rinks were closed due to COVID-19. He aspired to return to Santa Rosa, but died of metastatic cancer at 99 in 2020.
While some players weren’t sure they’d keep playing into their 70s and beyond, several who spoke to the Bohemian are intent on continuing to compete.
“I’m gonna keep playing until I can no longer play,” Rainville, the Roseville player, said, mirroring the comments of a few other players.