For the love of the game

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

When Dwayne Hay played for the Calgary Flames, he never had to buy his own sticks, nor did he ask the team to reimburse him for gas money.

As a first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens, Terry Ryan doesn't recall a whole lot of post-game dressing room scenes that involved beer and pizza.

But such are the realities for the two former NHLers spearheading a motley crew of aging pros taking dead aim at Canada's second oldest hockey trophy -- the Allan Cup.

Drawn back to the game through various circumstances to suit up for the Bentley Generals, housed 90 minutes north of Calgary, Hay and Ryan are part of a talented senior men's AAA team dripping with Calgary connections, including Joe Vandermeer, the older brother of Flames defenceman Jim.

And while most figure the glorified beer league is just a page out of an old Paul Newman flick, the 31-year-old blueliner says the calibre on his squad is comparable to any team he played on as a pro.

"It's not Slap Shot," said Vandermeer, who spent six years in the East Coast Hockey League and a season in Germany before returning to Sylvan Lake to start a business with Ryan Smyth's brothers, Jared and Kevin, who are now Generals teammates.

"I think four or five years ago it was like that, but so many guys are coming back from pro that it has developed the league.

"You come in from late days of work instead of having naps like pro, but afterwards we sit around and have beer and knick knacks just like any beer league."

Difference being, these guys have a legitimate shot at becoming national champions.

The Generals open defence of their provincial title tomorrow night against rival Stony Plain, which features former NHL defencemen Kyle Rossiter, Zenith Komarniski and Ryan Bast.

The Generals counter with a lineup almost entirely filled with guys who've played major junior or minor pro, if not the NHL.

That list includes former Islanders defenceman Ray Schultz, who was the first Hitmen player to play in the NHL, former Red Wing Darryl Laplante from Calgary, former Medicine Hat Tigers star Mark Woolf and U of C Dinos alumni Sean Robertson and Craig Strain.

And they do it for nothing more than $50 in gas money.

"Only if we have it," qualified team v-p Jason Lenz, whose club averaged 500 fans for home games during their 24-game regular season.

Those spectators are not there to see blood -- just good hockey.

"They let a lot go so there's a lot of hack and whack and obstruction you don't see in the NHL," explained Hay, 31, who played 49 games for the Flames in 2000-01 and is now a personal trainer in Cowtown. "It's kind of late '80s or early '90s NHL style with the stickwork and that leads to other stuff."

For instance, on average, one fight a night.

This year's big surprise has been Ryan, the Canadiens' eighth pick overall in 1995, who won the league scoring title despite taking most of the last five years off due to an ankle injury. He was actually on his way to talk with the Horse Lake Thunder -- a team Theo Fleury made headlines with in 2005 -- when he ran into Brian Sutter, who told him of the Bentley team he coached last year.

"I never thought I'd play again," said the 31-year-old Newfoundlander, who does oilfield work by day. "The senior league is awesome because you're not playing for money but passion and pride.

"Between us and Stony Plain, it's pro hockey. A lot of us could go to Europe, but this is exciting -- a chance to win the Allan Cup."

To bolster the coffers and expose a team that lost in the Allan Cup semis last year, the Generals will play home games for the best-of-seven provincial final at the 10,000-seat Centrium in Red Deer.

Game 1 goes tomorrow in Stony Plain with Game 2 slated for Sunday in Red Deer.

Beer and pizza to follow.


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