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.