At 78, Irene Bryson still plays hockey
It's Saturday, hockey night in Canada, including Rexdale, with a couple
of important wrinkles.
For one thing, a trio of fans are chanting: "Go, Grandma, Go!"
For another, Grandma is ... well, going. Strong. Quite possibly, right
into the record books.
Irene Bryson, No. 12 in the black Bruins-themed sweater, skates on left
wing, part of the regular Saturday night Rexdale Women's Hockey League
doubleheader at Westwood Arenas.
From a distance - even up close - you'd never guess that at 78 years of
age she may well be the oldest woman playing organized hockey in these
parts, or others. No one keeps definitive records, but suffice to say
that Newmarket's Bryson is the senior member of her non-contact league
by at least 10 years. The league's minimum age is 18 and many of its
skaters are half Bryson's age, or less.
"I always say, when I grow up I want to be just like Irene Bryson," says
team captain Donna Bonneville. She's 44 and only half-joking.
Bryson played on her first real team at 21, when someone finally
organized a women's team and entered it in a pioneering three-outfit
league north of Toronto. She learned the game skating on the pond with
her brothers on the family's farm near Maple, Ont.
"We had body-checking and everything back then," she says. "We had
hardly any equipment, either. All I had was a pair of gloves and shin
pads. No helmets, nothing like that. I was a pretty good body-checker.
Some of them even got in fights. I never got in any, I was a little
small for that."
She's "4-foot-11 or 10 1/2, something like that" and has always played
at about 145 compact pounds.
"She's tough as nails," says son Larry, 39. "When I was 16 she could
still beat me in a play fight."
But Bryson, a woman of few words more inclined to let her actions speak
for themselves, says modestly that women's hockey has evolved through
the years. "The players are a lot better now."
Only three or four years ago, Bryson was among the league's top few
scorers.. This season she's been mostly held off the score sheet on a
team that has had its collective problems winning. But on this night she
assists on the goal that gives her team a late, short-lived 2-1 lead (it
would end in a 2-2 tie). The resultant celebration is ageless, downright
Husband Cameron will be 82 in May and for all these years has rarely
missed one of his wife's game. They married later in life - she was 32 -
but now find themselves only three years from their 50th anniversary.
They have three children and five grandkids, all boys (three of them at
the game on this night), with another on the way. Cameron skated once or
twice but has never played hockey.
"It's a good thing," says Irene, impishly. "Somebody had to look after
"When you get to be 80," observes Cameron, "you don't want to be out on
the road in the bad weather. But if I told her we weren't coming (to the
arena), I'd be sleeping under the bed."
Farmers early on, both husband and wife drove school buses for 25 years.
Irene still works in the summers, selling vegetables at Round The Bend
Farm in Kettleby, Ont.
In her younger days, Irene was an avid fast-pitch softball player, a
catcher. She'd sometimes play two ball games and two hockey games on the
same Saturday. Sundays, through the years, have been mostly reserved for
attendance at the Gormley Missionary Church in Richmond Hill.
"She's inspirational," says Jennifer Maclachlan, 53, who plays on one of
the Rexdale league's other three teams. "Some of us started playing
hockey late in life. I was 47. I always felt I missed so much. But when
I see Irene, I see how long I have to look forward to.''Irene, whose
mother died when she was 10, says she has only rarely been sick and when
asked if she has any post-game aches or pains, says simply: "No." She
only reluctantly informed her physician that she was still playing
hockey - perhaps afraid he might shut her down - but he wholeheartedly
endorsed her recreation.
When might this long and active love-affair with Canada's game, this
skate down the decades, end?
She'd aimed to play until she was 75 but having surpassed that milestone
and then some, Irene says she's got her sights set on 80. But she is
really taking it one game at a time and one season at a time.
"I've had fun. I just like getting out there and playing."