Dan Picarella

Dan Picarella and "Zeke"

Gordie Howe played pro hockey until he was 51 years old.

Dan Picarella of Herculaneum isn’t playing in the NHL like the great Howe did, but at 71, he’s still on the ice.

Picarella plays for the St. Louis Storm in the Hockey North America League. The minimum age to play in the league is 20. There isn’t a maximum age, but Picarella is usually the oldest skater on the ice.

Since the league was established in 1980, it’s offered play for thousands of players. What makes the HNAL different from other levels of hockey? Players can’t check each other or fight.

The league was formed to take advantage of a swell of interest in the sport soon after the U.S. Olympic team won the gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980.

The last place you’d expect to find a 71-year-old (Picarella will be 72 in November) hockey player is in Herculaneum. But that’s where the 1967 graduate of Crystal City calls home. Picarella didn’t start playing the sport until he was in his mid-30s. He was working at Monsanto in St. Louis when he learned about a pickup league at Suson Park in south St. Louis County.

“I saw a game there and I thought it was really interesting,” Picarella said. “I called California where the headquarters of the league was and they put me on a beginners’ team.”

The rink where Picarella started isn’t there anymore, but he’s remained passionate about playing, wherever he can find a league. He played in the Meramec Valley Hockey League until its demise about 20 years ago. He’s played on other teams besides the Storm in the HNAL. After taking last season off, Picarella returned to the Storm as a reserve player. He’ll fill in for players on the regular roster when they can’t make it to games.

None of the players in the league are paid, and Picarella said it costs $450 to play in about 23 games. If the Storm makes it to the league championship in Toronto, aside from travel costs, games are free to play in.

The majority of the players in the HNAL are in their 20s and 30s. Some have played competitively for years, while others are like Picarella and play because they love the sport.

“I like physical sports. I like a sport with contact,” he said. “You have to go fast and at times you get to hit. I’m just tickled I can still play.”

When Picarella tells players on other teams how old he is, they sometimes shake their heads in disbelief. But don’t let his long white hair fool you. A defenseman, Picarella picks up his share of penalties. In fact, he had so many one year that his team asked him not to come back.

“I played defense for 25 straight years,” he said. “It takes a little bit more skill to keep guys from scoring. I like to check the guys and get in their face. I don’t handle the puck as well as the young guys can.”

Despite his age, the opposition doesn’t take it easy on Picarella.

“They usually don’t know how old I am and when they find out, they can’t believe me,” he said. “I get some good compliments.”

Picarella’s age and reputation have become widespread in his three decades on the ice. So much so that he’s earned the nickname the “Alien.” He took the name to heart and bought an alien that was designed for the movie “Men in Black 2.”

“Zeke” travels with Picarella most places and rides around with him in the vintage car he rebuilt.

“They don’t think someone my age can come from this planet,” Picarella said of the other players in the league.

Picarella taught himself to skate. Not finding satisfaction in a pick-up league, he wanted to play in a league with referees and rules. He said he often pushes the envelope when it comes to hitting.

“If you know how to hit hard, you can get away with it. I’m known for it,” he said.

Oftentimes hockey hits back. When razor-sharp skates, sticks and a vulcanized rubber hockey puck are combined in close quarters, injuries are common.

Picarella has had several injuries throughout the years. In the late 1980s, in one game, an errant slap shot broke three bones in one of his feet. Later in the game, he checked a player and ended up with a broken right collarbone, dislocated shoulder and a concussion. He’s broken all of his fingers in his left hand twice, both wrists and has suffered several concussions.

“Some of the slap shots are up to 100 mph,” he said. “When that hits you, the padding doesn’t always help you out. It’s just something I like doing. When I broke my collarbone, it was a love tap.”

To stay in shape, Picarella said he uses a treadmill in his house. He’s played on 11 teams. The Storm practice where they can find ice time in a region where rink space is divided among youth leagues and the Mid-States Club Hockey Association. Usually, the Storm practice at 10 p.m. or later. They travel to St. Peters and use the Rec-Plex sometimes. They practiced at the Kirkwood Ice Rink on Friday.

Picarella hasn’t played in a game since February 2018. He’s eager to get his chance to don the Storm’s sweater.

“We had a good practice last Friday and the guys thought I might have slowed down, but I can still hold my own,” Picarella said. “I might be a little slower, but during the game the adrenaline kicks in and keeps me going.”

Just in Missouri there are dozens of teams in several leagues in the HNAL. The season runs from October through February. Picarella has been chosen as an all-star in the league, the last time in 2013 when he played for the Jaguars.

Hockey isn’t Picarella’s only hobby. Several trips to Europe and visits to art galleries inspired him to start painting. The walls of his home are adorned with his artwork. His parents were both Italian and he has tried to create a little bit of the country in his backyard with a large deck and fountain. He likes to rebuild old cars. I told him he is a Renaissance man.

Like many hockey fans this year, Picarella got swept up in the St. Louis Blues’ journey to winning their first Stanley Cup in June. He said he saw something special in the Blues as far back as January when they had the worst record in the NHL. A member of the Festus-Crystal City Elks, he watched the playoff games there.

“I said, ‘Just watch, they’ll turn it around,’” he said. “They have some of the best players in the league. It takes a while to adjust. When you get older, you start thinking differently. You learn how to play and watch other people and how they move. That’s the key thing. I think the Blues have a fantastic coach.” (Craig Berube). He’s magnificent. He knows how to work with his players. He wants them to play hard and he lets them play their game, but when they make a mistake, he lets them know what they did wrong.”