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Sport Is for Life

by on April 02, 2019 5:00 AM

I had a conversation on Sunday with a friend at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church about the fact that I was back to playing adult hockey. She was thrilled that I was skating again and thought it was great that at my age I was still out there playing a sport I love. It got me thinking about a couple of gentlemen I know who have set the bar high for those of us who truly believe sport is for life.

Henry Mellinger was a lifelong swimmer, tennis player, hiker, and, most of all, an avid skater. He was a regular face in the Greenberg Ice Pavilion well into his 80’s.  Former Ice Pavilion employee Marie Kraft remembered Henry as the “gentlemen that skated around with a Sony Walkman during public skating sessions and would conduct the music with his hands as he skated. I loved Henry and always enjoyed talking with him.” Henry was always wearing a smile and going out of his way to come by and say hello and to ask me how the hockey team was doing back when I was the coach of the Icers.

Good friend and longtime local skating professional Gloria Leous told me, “I loved bumping into Henry and his wife, Bea, at the rink. Henry radiated happiness. I never once saw him without a smile on his face. Before I knew who he was, I remember watching him bob around the rink during public skates, with his pant legs rolled up (so he wouldn’t trip), Walkman on, and smiling. The rink was a happier place simply because he was there. No matter where or when, he was still smiling.”

It was not until Henry passed away this past December at 95 that I learned that he served our country in World War II as a pilot for air-sea rescue missions in the South Pacific. An industrial engineer by trade, Henry was a real-life John Wayne character and a true hero. Henry was an inspiration to all of us and just seeing the sheer joy on his face as he skated around the rink brought a smile to everyone. Is there any doubt that Henry’s lifelong commitment to swimming, tennis, hiking and skating helped him live a long and energetic life?

At 72 years young, Thom Rippon is still playing in the NHL – the Nittany Hockey League.  Everyone at Pegula Ice Arena is amazed at his stamina and that he is still very competitive. How then does he do it? I decided to find out for myself since I am a mere 58-year-old playing alongside a “veteran” like Thom.

I asked Thom how long he’s been playing hockey.

“I was raised as a youth in a then-rare PA hockey town, Hershey. [The NHL expanded in 1967, which led to a major expansion of youth and scholastic hockey in PA: Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and their regions, and then beyond.] There was no scholastic hockey in Hershey, but we had town youth and adult hockey leagues. I started learning to skate at age 5 at the public skating sessions at Hersheypark Arena, holding onto the top of the boards for the first year until I roamed more. I played street shinny and pond hockey for a few years and then joined a team at age 8. We had games mostly on what was then the ‘outdoor rink’ next to the Hershey Bears Arena, although some games were played in the arena.”

Thom proudly added, “So as of today, I have been playing hockey for 67 years…and I’m lovin’ it...!”

I was included in an email last fall that gave a health update on Thom and his response to all was, “To quote James Brown: I feel good! Drop the puck!” It was his way of announcing he’d be back for another year of “NHL” hockey at Pegula.

Thom was a five-sport athlete at Hershey High School and a two-sport one at Colby College in Maine. “Those who know are quizzical when I say ‘five-sport’ in high school, as there are only three seasons: fall, winter, spring. But coming from Hershey, this is how I did it: three interscholastic endeavors - football (running back who also returned punts and kickoffs), basketball (point guard), and track & field (sprinter, sprint relays, and broad jumper). I played ice hockey in the evenings and on weekends in the winter, and Teen and Legion baseball in the summer. Voila!”

So, I asked Thom, what else did he do to stay in shape?

“First, as you know, one must stick to a regimen; I do.” Thom’s current regimen involves basically three things three times a week: [1] at least 10 miles and 45 vigorous minutes on a stationary bike with a 10 minute warm-up, followed by six five-minute sprint/glide elements (sprint very hard for two minutes and glide out of that at a good pace for three minutes, then back to the next sprint, repeat); [2] weightlifting; and [3] core exercises.

“I am a birder (Audubon bird watcher), and often walk my 90-acre farm doing such. Taking tillable out-of-production, I created much natural habitat over the years, and I have 2 miles of hiking trails on the farm. I also occasionally hike the mountains around us too. I occasionally warm-weather paddle (canoe and kayak). I am a lifelong golfer who never walks off 18 with bragging rights. I also played a lot of squash mid-life but seem not to fit that in much anymore.”

So: He skates, lifts, crunches, pedals, paddles, and…well, “walks the walk” of staying fit, including a balanced diet, not infected with trendy food restrictions and paranoia.

Thom added, “I eat anything and everything, anywhere. But my diet is fully-balanced. I am a close-to-gourmet cook and prepare from fresh each evening, with fish and game for the protein. I drink one glass of white wine as I prepare the meal and one glass of red wine while I eat the meal. I rarely drink ‘hard stuff’ or beer.” Although he does admit to having a few beers after an evening hockey game, to help preserve the collective moniker “beer league.”

I asked if he still liked to run. “I no longer ‘run the country roads’ (I stopped asphalt and dirt in my mid-50s due to the normal doctors’ suggestions about possible knee damage, though I’ve never had any), but I have been a road and stationary bike person for decades. Today, if I play hockey on the day or evening before, I take the next day off. I play ice hockey 12 months a year, at least once and sometimes three times a week (mostly in State College, but also in Sunbury and Hershey). Many adult league ice hockey players are used to traveling a bit of a distance to get a session in.”

He noted that on the “High Plains of Canada,” some adults travel 3 hours one-way to a rink so what’s an hour or so!

Thom added a final “very contemporary” note: recently he used one of the genetic testing services to get both results: genealogy and health predispositions.

“It is confirmed what I always thought, I am very much Anglo-Irish, with some French and Northern European (code for Viking). They also stated in the report that I am by genetic array what they call ‘a Super Athlete.’ I telephoned them about that phrase, and they said I am from what they also call ‘the Warrior Class’. In all the organized sports that I have played, I was always ‘good’ but never ‘great,’ so I mused on the fact that in ice hockey I rarely took or take a penalty. So perhaps, I am thinking, I need to live up to my Warrior ancestry better and engage in more infractions sending me to the penalty box (where, at my age, I can rest)!”

The report also listed more than 200 predispositions to a health condition or disease that the firm assesses, and to his amazement, Thom ran the table. “I have zero such predispositions. I am merely lucky, which is also the only way I score my hockey goals these days!”

Thom’s report stated that he is “highly educated” according to the insurance industry table, and an avid reader and is into the arts and the humanities. “Engaging in sporting activity clears the body and the mind, allowing and inspiring one to live a more complete life: it is, as it has always been – it is all about ‘mind, body, and soul’ to achieve self-unity within one’s personal philosophy of life.”  

In my book I talk about the Greek philosophy of Arete, the perfect blending of body, mind and spirit. Thom is way out ahead of me.

So, I am feeling like a slacker compared to Henry and Thom, being that I “only” play adult hockey and golf these days. Shoulder and neck injuries prevent me from participating in tennis, softball, and basketball. But having learned more about these Supermen, perhaps I will step it up a notch, and then I too can live a long and healthy life through sport like Henry and Thom.  



Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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