Gavin Wilk and Mike Kowalski first started playing hockey together 13 years ago.
That first year competing for the Eastern Illinois University Panthers started a bond that continues to this day. Wilk and Kowalski are playing together again on the Crooked Sticks adult squad from Center Ice of Du Page in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
The Crooked Sticks also have a couple other players from the college hockey ranks on their roster, from Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.
“It’s important that we stay together,” Wilk said.
The Crooked Sticks play in the competitive B Division in the league. The team is comprised of players who are anywhere from 23 to 50 years old.
“It’s a good mix, young talent and experience,” said Wilk, who is 31 and in his second year with the team. “We have good depth.”
Kowalski is in his first year with the Crooked Sticks. After playing hockey in college, Kowalski enlisted in the Army and was away from the sport he loves.
“I had to knock the rust off, because it’s been a while since I skated,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski has relished being back on the ice. During his stint in the military, he didn’t have a lot of opportunities to play the sport he loves. Getting back into his skating groove took some time to regain.
“It was a lot harder than I thought,” said Kowalski, who is also 31. “I would recommend anyone to skate at least once or twice a month. I took about a year off, and that was really hard to get back.”
With his return to the rink, Kowalski — who skates twice a week, along with playing for another adult team in Orland Park, Illinois — is focused on trying to help the Crooked Sticks win.
“No one wants to get blown out and nobody wants to blow anybody out, so you have to find that right mix between guys that can skate, guys that want to have fun, but the camaraderie’s got to be there, too,” Kowalski said. “What we’ve found with the Crooked Sticks is it’s just a good group of guys, decent skaters and they’re all about hanging out and having a good time. But we like to compete every game, at least in a manner of a couple of goals either way.”
Added Wilk: “We go out there to win, but we’re there to have fun. It’s something to do after work and get together with the guys afterwards.”
Along with playing in the adult league, Wilk and Kowalski are competing with former Eastern Illinois teammates in the annual Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships in Eagle River, Wisconsin.
“Come up here and see the guys that we played college with and get away from everything,” Wilk said. “We relive the glory days, I guess.”
It was Kowalski’s first year at pond hockey in 2016, and he loved everything about the tournament. He made it clear that it will be tough to keep him away from the pond in the future.
“As long as I’m not back in the military serving across the country, I’ll be here every year,” Kowalski said. “As long as the age brackets keep going up, I’ll keep coming back.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.