A unique hockey institution began in Rimbey in 1976, and Ken Stemo is the only remaining original member. It started with Ken and a core of local teachers gathering weekly for recreational shinny. Over the years dozens of men and women have been involved in its evolution into the strange and exotic experience known as Zen hockey (sometimes described as more of a state of mind than traditional hockey).
Ken still plays at age 75 and is the elder statesmen. He offers sage and mystical advice both on and off the ice and it seems his remaining objective is to levitate the puck without actually contacting it.
Although it is not uncommon for a forward line to offer up well over two centuries of combined hockey experience, Zen’s makeup is more than seniors. There are new young players coming in each year, looking for exercise and camaraderie without the winter travel and competition of league play. The younger players are now taking the lead in organizing and looking after the schedule, so it looks like Zen Hockey could be around for a long time to come.
Often two generations from a family will be on the ice at the same time. Especially at Christmas, kids and grandkids come out and try to best their elders. However, they soon learn that the secrets of the Zen game are not easily mastered. For instance, we long ago dropped the 2-line pass rule, and it took several years for the NHL to follow suit. We also dropped the blue line and we expect the NHL will eventually follow.
The teams are determined randomly each night by whether one has pulled on a red or a blue jersey. There is some strategy with the last players in the room assessing who is wearing what colour, what colour needs more players, and who wants to play with (or against) whom.
There have been times over the years that we have played with fully-dressed goalies, but mostly without. Through an elaborate system of positional rotation, each player plays forward, defence and goalie before being rewarded with a little bench time. It is taboo to keep score!
With the wide age spread on the ice at any given time, good manners must prevail. The over arching goal of Zen is to have fun, within these guidelines:
• Respect your elders, but go hard in the corners against your peers.
• Stick work by elders is frowned upon, but tolerated.
• Slapshots and raising of the puck at the unpadded goalies are discouraged (although accidents happen).
• There is no serious body contact (unless mutually agreed to ahead of time).
Combined with the on-ice hockey time, long traditions of off-ice get togethers have evolved.
These include: enjoying a cold beverage and healthy snacks after the game; saunas twice a year; the telling, retelling and forgetting of jokes and true stories; a year-end windup party; group photos and occasional videos taken over the years. Unfortunately, the videos are always recorded in slow motion. We are indebted to James (Bar and Grill) and Helen for tolerating and treating us for many years.
And of course, there is the annual awarding of trophies. We have several trophies now, hand made extravaganzas celebrating various aspects of the Zen game. The original trophy was for the Most Zen-like player. Now we have the Young Gun trophy, the Old Guy trophy and the Whiner trophy which is presented to the player who believes they really deserved to win the Most Zen-like player trophy, but didn’t. And one un-named devotee, despairing of ever getting a trophy, made one for himself.
In the picture is Ken displaying the commemorative plaque commissioned for the occasion of Zen’s fortieth year by Rob Gilgan and hand crafted by David Coombs. Close inspection will reveal that this beautiful work of art includes a forty year old hockey skate and, appropriately, the butt ends of two forty year old hockey sticks as well as the inimitable figurine that graces all the many Zen trophies. It is signed by several of the current Zen devotees.