Walk into the Murray Memorial Ice Rink in Yonkers, N.Y. any Monday night from October to April, and you'll find Robert Burgess over in one corner. He'll be sitting on a bench, a little man dwarfed by his hockey gear, waiting—as he has the past 17 years—for the "youngsters" to arrive. He's known as Pops and seemingly always has been.
Pops is the first member of his old-timers team to arrive and the last to leave. He reserves ice time, collects dues and pays the rink attendant. He's also the one that team coach Bob Santini, 51, and defenseman Jimmy Heslin, 48, look for when they arrive. They're eager to get down to business—razzin' Pops. Most of it centers on Pops's age—he's 77—and his line of work, the ministry. "There mustn't be any ice up in Heaven, Pops," says Heslin. "Otherwise you'd probably be on your way."
Pops is their straight man. They call him the Arrow. He starts recounting his performance at the team's last oldtimers tournament. "I hit the post with a shot and missed it by a whisker," he says.
Heslin corrects him. "No, Pops, you missed it by an hour."
Since 1967, Pops and his Yonkers pals have been exchanging insults and wrist shots every Monday from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. That's the only time they and tens of thousands of other senior hockey players across the country can get ice time.
Until three years ago theirs was just a pickup game. But in July 1979, the group got as serious as it ever gets and named itself the New York Apple Core Oldtimers Hockey Team. Now it hits the road six or seven times a year, competing in New England, California, Hawaii and Canada.
As pastor of the Bellerose Assembly of God Church in New York City's borough of Queens, Pops ministers to a congregation of 600 and oversees a day-care center, church schools and adult Bible-study classes. He counsels parishioners with marriage problems. He is also starting pitcher for the church Softball team.
Among the Apple Corers are an advertising exec, a teamster, a teacher of Greek, an artist and a transit engineer. A few don't know that Pops is a pastor—professions don't count for much on the ice.
Now and then a frustrated player lets fly with a few blasphemous words. "Where'd you learn that prayer?" Pops will ask.
Pops runs practices as though they were his own business. "He's always there, sitting with his old equipment on, with his little green book out, checking people off as they come in," says Santini. Pops and only Pops decides who plays and who doesn't. Twenty is the limit; extra men are sent home.
If a player hasn't brought the exact amount for the $8 dues, Pops rolls his eyes toward Heaven, then sighs for effect; After all the money has been collected, he stashes it in his hockey pants, inside his left sock and behind his shin pads.
By the time Pops heads for the ice, his glasses secured under his helmet and a red plaid scarf tucked under his jersey, it's almost midnight. He and Dick Warwick, 51, captain opposing teams. They sit up on the boards, feet dangling, choosing up sides.
"No, no, no, Dick, it's my turn to pick," says Pops.
No one keeps score, and the rules are simple: no boarding, no heavy checking and no slap shots. "Just straight hockey," says the Arrow.
The pastor has aged gracefully in this young man's game. He has found a way of staying in the action without impeding it. Pops plays left wing by the book. "He's a stickhandler and a dekeman. He really fakes you out," says Santini. "But he doesn't move as quick as he used to." Teammates mustn't be too obvious about pampering Pops. "He gets mad," says Chuck Clark, 47. "He'll shout, 'Now don't do that. Get serious!' You have to try to take the puck away from him, but not too hard."
When Pops scores, he just grins and skates away—no hugs, no fanfare. "It's obvious that he was once a great hockey player," says Mark Asadoorian, 32.
Robert Burgess was born in Kilmarnock, Scotland, on Jan. 30, 1907 and moved to Canada with his family in the early 1920s. He began playing hockey and soccer in his teens, joined the Canadian army before World War II and starred on a regimental hockey team that won the army championship. Later he coached the Canadian army team. He skated in several Canadian church leagues before moving to Queens in 1964. Pops was playing senior hockey before there was a slap shot. He figures that if you add up all his goals, he has scored between 500 and 800 in his career. "I've been playing long enough, it should be thousands," he says.
Senior hockey has held many grand moments for Pops, but none compares with the moment last summer when he was named Rookie of the Year at the Snoopy, the premier oldtimers tournament in the U.S., hosted by cartoonist Charles Schulz in Santa Rosa, Calif.
Pops played on the Apple Core's third line, "the old line," with Heslin and Arnie Caruso, 53, recently recovered from triple-bypass surgery. "Opponents would see that line and start lickin' their chops. They could never understand afterward why they couldn't take this old guy," says Santini.
The Oldtimers finished third among the four teams in their division; nevertheless, Pops, the oldest player, was awarded a Snoopy dog dish as the outstanding rookie. Schulz suggested he use it as a collection plate.
When Pops turned 70, his teammates began honoring him on his birthday with a special dinner before practice. At last year's dinner they gave him a new hockey stick to replace the one he had used for 15 years. It was his first stick with a curved blade. Pops cried.