By Martin Cleary
As an athlete, Ray Wardle was a late bloomer, well, a very late, but highly accomplished, bloomer.
Once he got in the game, whether it was playing old-timers’ hockey or exploding out of the starting blocks as a sprinter, there was no stopping him.
A fit and young-looking 90 years old, Wardle completed yet another hockey season Thursday afternoon with the Octokids (Octogenarians) as the oldest active hockey player in Ottawa. And he’s considering making a comeback in track and field, following a 12-year world- and Canadian-record-breaking career, which ended in 2014.
When the Ottawa-born Wardle attended “the real Ottawa Tech” high school on Albert Street, he was a champion half-miler and cross-country runner, and an intramural hockey and basketball player.
At Carleton University, the mathematics and physics student was a swimmer, track athlete and hockey player, but it played havoc with him and he missed earning his degree. (He did, however, have a successful professional career in the emerging computer industry with UNIVAC.)
When he left Carleton, Wardle put sports aside in the mid-1950s for his full-time job, marriage and an everyday life “to paint the walls and cut the grass.”
But in the early 1970s, he started to play pick-up hockey, usually once a week, sometimes on a Sunday afternoon. Wardle’s father Tom questioned the logic of someone in his late 30s playing the fast-paced and strenuous game of hockey.
“’Do you know how old you are?’” Wardle remembers his father challenging his judgement about playing a young-man’s game. “By hockey standards back then, I was old, ancient (to be playing hockey).”
About that time, Wardle was named to a Canadian team to travel to Finland for a World Cup competition. Finnish teams placed first and second overall, while Canada had a .500 record.
Suddenly, his father had a new perspective of his son playing hockey.
“He was running all over the place, telling people I was going to play in Europe,” Wardle recalled. “He was proud at that time.”
In his early 40s, Wardle played twice a week for about 10 years. In his 50s, he was on the ice three times a week to start his old-timers’ career in the mid-1990s.
As each year passed, his love of hockey grew a little more as he would patrol the blueline as a defenceman. He also served as a key team administrative person, making sure there were enough players for games or securing ice time.
For the past five years, he was the point-man or team director for the Octokids, a group of players in their 80s. If there was a problem or an issue, the players would saddle up beside him in the dressing room. But Wardle stepped down from that role after this season and can focus exclusively on hockey in 2023-24.
In the past, Wardle has been connected with the Silver Streaks team, which he started and was involved with for more than 20 years, and the Old Buzzards.
The Octokids is a group of 20 skaters and two goalies. They don’t play in a league, but rather each player skates on a different roster of players every game to keep it interesting. One person is responsible for drawing up the player lineups, another person must track down two goalkeepers and a third person is in charge of collecting money to cover the $10,000 ice rental bill for the season.
Wardle played about 40 games this season for the Octokids and missed two months as he spent time in Costa Rica. When he returned from his warm, winter break in February, he felt like he was starting hockey all over again. But by the end of the season, he was back in top form.
Overall, he felt he had a good season as a defenceman for the Octokids.
“I guess for 90 I have good speed,” admitted the five-foot, three-inch Wardle. “I don’t score a lot of goals. My job is to see that the other guys don’t score.
“I enjoy getting the exercise and beating the guys rushing to the puck. The camaraderie goes along with the game and the kibitzing. Sixty per cent of it is time in the dressing room before and after the game.”
As one season ends, Wardle looks forward to next fall to hit the ice and renew his friendships once again.
“You have a nucleus of players, who you don’t see much other than on the ice,” he said. “When fall comes, you’re anxious to get back to see the guys and see what they did in the summer. You always hope you’re one of the guys playing.”
Wardle isn’t fazed by being a nonagenarian.
“It doesn’t seem real in some ways,” he said. “I’m the oldest guy playing in most places. I don’t think of myself [as a role model], but there are a lot of people who think of me in those terms.”
The track and field community certainly looked up to Wardle, after he decided to find a coach with the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club in 2003 to see if he could rekindle his sprinting career, which had been dormant for more than 50 years.
For a dozen years, Wardle could tell his hockey peers he was following a strict training program to become a world-class sprinter and relay runner in his various five-year age groups.
“I was playing softball with an over-60 group and someone said to me, ‘I haven’t seen anyone run like that since university.’ It was nice to get that pat on the back. The next year, the same thing happened,” Wardle explained. “I started to wonder if I could still run.”
After the softball season, he travelled to the Terry Fox Athletic Facility and was linked with coach Marta Piresferreira, who turned the half-miler into a 100-, 200- and 400-metre sprinter. She said it was easier to train for the sprints rather than 800 metres and Wardle agreed.
With almost a full year of training under his belt, he entered his first race in an elite 200-metre field in Toronto in 2004.
“I found what it was like to be last. I didn’t much like coming last, even if I was in good company,” Wardle said. “I told Marta the meet was for elite athletes in Ontario. I was introduced to the upper crust off the bat.”
He continued his training and won a bronze medal the following season, which whet his appetite to go for silver medals, then gold medals and then multiple gold medals.
In 2013, Wardle turned 80 on New Year’s Day, which meant he would be one of the youngest sprinters in the men’s 80-84 class. After helping set his first national outdoor record two years earlier in the men’s 75 class 4×400 metre relay, Wardle was part of five more record-setting relay runs in 2013.
Wardle was the lead runner as the Ontario team established two world and Canadian indoor records on back-to-back days at the national masters championships in the 4×200-metre relay (2:33.4) and the 4×400 race (6:06.23).
His three other Canadian records were outdoors in the 4×100-, 4×400- and 4×800-metre relays in respective times of 1:10.57, 6:25.06 and 14:24.03. The six Canadian records remain on the books almost a decade later.
Wardle ran the majority of those world and national records with notable Ontario runners Ed Whitlock, Earl Fee and Bill Thompson.
In 2014, Wardle retired after winning gold medals in the men’s 80-84 class 100, 200 and 400 metres at the Ontario, Canadian and North American masters championships.
“It was time to quit,” Wardle added. “To stay in condition at that level, the conditioning (program) is unbelievable. I was doing exercises every day for an hour to 1.5 hours. There would be leg squats, 50 sit-ups, 100 push ups.
“I’d go to (track) training three times a week. Then, I’d play hockey three times a week. And on Sunday I’d run in the pool. It didn’t leave a lot of lying around time.”
He had a specific program for pool running and as a coach developed a similar plan for Ottawa’s Wendy Alexis, who is a notable Canadian and world masters sprinter.
Alexis is trying to persuade Wardle to return to competitive sprinting, but he knows he would need two years of training to feel comfortable before stepping back into the starting blocks.
He has looked at the times of Canadian men 90 and over and feels he could do better. But that’s the easy part. Dedicated training is the hard part.
If Earl Fee is planning to run after recovering from a broken collarbone this winter, Wardle would give it serious thought.
“I beat Earl once in my last race (2014),” added Wardle, who also likes to sail and canoe. “Wendy is convinced I’m going to run. I don’t think I’m good enough to beat Earl again. If I’m not good enough, I don’t want to run again.
“I need a good amount of training. I only have a couple of months to train (for this season) and not 10 years. I should have started two years ago to get in (track) shape.”
Wardle has put a check mark in the box to play hockey for the Octokids in 2023-24, but he’s still holding the pencil and debating about another return to sprinting.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.