If Steve Wochy were placed behind a curtain in one of those old Dating Game shows from the 1960s and 70s, it would be difficult for a contestant to decipher his age. At 97, he still has his faculties and sense of humor and his voice has the steadiness of a man half his age.
But the oldest living person to have ever played in the NHL insists that things aren’t always what they seem and that deep down he feels every bit of the 97 years his birth certificate suggests he is.
“I ain’t going to make it,” says Wochy, a Christmas day baby when asked about reaching his 100th birthday. “I’m going down. It’ s hard. There are a lot of things right now. My back for some reason in the last couple of days is just aching real badly. It seems like rigor mortis is setting in one of the legs.”
For a second you start to feel sorry for him, but then that laughter erupts and he says, “you’ll find out, you’ll get there, you’ll find out.”
Born in a city that no longer exists – Fort William, Ont. – Wochy moved to Sault Ste. Marie in 1955 to wind down his hockey career and he’s been here ever since. Having played with the late Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Roy Conacher, Jacques Plante and Johnny Bower, he became the oldest living player to have played in the NHL when Jim Conacher died earlier this year at the age of 98. Howie Meeker, at 96, is the second oldest former player still living.
And to illustrate just how long he’s been around, Wochy has lived through 17 U.S. presidents, 14 different Canadian Prime Ministers, the horrible Adolf Hitler era, World War II, the death of Joseph Stalin and the bombing of Hiroshima.
And while he apologizes for what he believes are his declining faculties – “I’m a little slow, you know. I’m 97 and I don’t think as quick anymore” – you’d never know it from talking to him.
His memory appears relatively intact. He still lives by himself in the home he built in 1959, cooks his own meals, does his own shopping and still drives a car, to which he says “there’s nothing wrong with that. I still understand the road signs and everything. I’m OK. I’ll know when to quit.”
Born Steve Wojciechowski in Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Wochy (he legally changed his name) moved to Sault Ste. Marie in 1955 to play hockey and has been here ever since. He eventually caught on with Algoma Steel and retired from there after a long career working security. His wife, Shirley of 60 years died in 2006. He has two sons, Greg and Randy.
Wochy coached minor hockey in the Sault for 10-12 years following his retirement from hockey and says he loved every minute of it.
“I coached the kids for 10-12 years,” he said. “I coached not for a winner, but I just made sure all the kids I had, that everybody got a chance to get on the ice. I wasn’t like some coaches, you know where some players don’t even get on the ice.”
His hockey career kicked off in flying fashion in 1944-45 when the Detroit Red Wings acquired the then 22-year-old right winger. He tallied 19 goals in just 49 games for the Wings, who lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final that year to the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was a magical start for Wochy, who credits a lot of his success to the late Don Grosso, a Sault native who scored 204 points in 332 career NHL games. Grosso was his centreman for most of that year before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks and Wochy flourished in Grosso’s presence. Without Grosso, the goals did not come as easily.
“With him we had a good line,” Wochy said. “Don was a very good hockey player. He’d say ‘stay on right wing’ and he’d do all the hustling and the pucks would come out and that’s when I started getting goals.
“At Christmas time I think I had about 15 goals, Jack Adams gave me a bonus, you wouldn’t believe it, it was a great bonus, it was about $25. He gave me a letter, said it was a gift from big boss (James) Norris. He said don’t tell anybody. I laugh about it every now and then.”
While the game and systems have changed, Wochy says Rocket Richard is the best player he’s ever seen from the blue-line in, but says Gordie Howe is the best overall player of all time.
“From the blue-line in, I take Rocket Richard over anyone,” he said. “You try and stop him when he’s going to the net, he could be on his back and he’d carry you all the way. From the blue-line in if he had a chance to score a goal, you could lie on him and he would carry you. Me, someone laid on my back and I’d be down on the ice. He was strong. For the best all around player, I’d have to go with Gordie Howe.”
Ironically after the 1944-45 season, Wochy played just five more games in the NHL. He spent the majority of his career after that in the American Hockey League and led the AHL in goals in 1952-53. He also won a Calder Cup with the Cleveland Barons.
As he reminisces about the game, the topic turns to helmets. It is still shocking to see old footage of helmetless players but Wochy insists times have changed the respect players once had for one another is gone.
“Believe me they don’t respect each other today for some reason,” he said. “I can see them go into the boards and what do they do, they go for the head and push. Anybody can get a concussion that way. In other words you have to watch when you go into the boards. Back in the day they’d hit you, but not in the head, they respected you.”
That was a long time ago and today, instead of enjoying some of his favourite pastimes such as the casino or lunch with a friend or family member, Wochy is somewhat confined to his home.
He says the COVID-19 virus put a dent in the things he loves to do and he has to be careful about who he’s around.
“Believe me it’s hard,” Wochy said. “I’ll go out now and then and the odd time I’ll go when it’s quiet to walk around just to get out and walk. My back’s gone so bad with arthritis. I’m having a heck of a time walking. I use a cane now and the pain is so bad that sometimes I can’t even walk and I can’t go to a therapist because everybody’s on lockdown.
“I guess everybody’s worried about it. You don’t know where it’s coming from or how you can get it. I don’t think they know how you get it. They say contact with somebody but there are a lot of people who have had no contact with somebody and they still got it. When the casino was open I’d be going there for entertainment, you don’t win, but you meet a lot of people, people you worked with and that.”
Even at 97, he’s astute enough to understand that he has to find a way to get exercise, no matter how much pain he’s in. He tries to stay active because for a man of his age, he knows inactivity will only lead to a bed and that’s not how he wants to go down.
“As you get older you lose the muscles in your legs and you get weaker and weaker so that’s why you have to watch it,” he said. “If you fall, you break your hip and then everything goes, but you have to keep walking to keep the muscles strong.”
And so far, even at 97, Steve Wochy has defied all odds and there’s every reason to believe the oldest living human to have played in the NHL, will make it to that magical 100th birthday.