LAKESIDE — When Neal Whitney heard about the Lima Chargers/Blues hockey reunion, the 72-year-old pastor of The Church at Allentown was ecstatic.
The Allen County native was a major part of the hockey scene that spanned about a decade from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s as a player and a coach.
The reunion is set for the Howard Johnson from 5-11 p.m. July 21. It will be an open house style where people can come in and out as they please.
“The idea of getting together is great,” said Whitney who will be seeing past teammates for the first time in 30 years.
In addition to catching up with former teammates, Whitney is also looking forward to seeing the strong core of fans who supported the two teams.
“I am really hoping the community people come back so we can visit with them too,” Whitney said. “Even though we weren’t great they supported us and were very loyal. Maybe it is the best hockey they ever saw because it was the only hockey they ever saw.”
Whitney added that the team got great support from area businesses as well.
It will be interesting to hear the stories of Whitney because he admits that he is a different person on the ice now than when he played back then.
“I used to not be very nice,” Whitney admits. “They used to say I was Jekyll and Hyde. That I was really nice off the ice but when I stepped on the ice something kicked in. I was very passionate and very competitive and wanted to win at all cost and it took until about 65 that I got over that.”
Whitney’s hockey journey began playing on ponds between St. Marys and Spencerville as a child and then made his way to Lima for more formal competition when an ice rink was erected in Lima.
“They built an ice rink in Lima in 1965 so as soon as I heard that they had indoor ice I came up there and had kind of a natural gift to play and so was able to turn into a decent player in a short amount of time because I played a lot and I had some natural gifting.”
Whitney was on both Lima squads but primarily spent most of his playing days with the Blues.
The Blues played against teams from Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and Chicago.
“The Chargers were made of a lot of guys from Michigan and Canada and the Blues were more people who were from Lima and Van Wert and in this general area. We did have a couple of guys from out of state,” Whitney said. “Mostly it (the Blues) was more like a local team and great for the community.”
Traveling to games was the most fun for Whitney and the strong bond that was developed among teammates.
“For me the most fun probably was the camaraderie with the team members and then the connection with the people in Lima who came to the games,” Whitney said. “I’m a real relationship person so any time you can get me in something where there is a relationship I’m all for that.”
Whitney added he also said that he saw children wanting to play and it caused a minor hockey explosion to occur in Lima after several area high school teams fielded squads and a youth program was also developed.
After the closing of the rink in Lima in 1975, the team, and most of the hockey in Lima, moved to the rink in Findlay where they continued to play and where Whitney, at age 72, continues to lace up the skates and participate in games and tournaments. When he reached the age of 65, he began playing in old-timer events across the United States four times a year and after hitting 70-years-old he has moved into that age bracket.
“I took one year off when I had my hip and shoulder replaced but other than that I have been playing hockey,” Whitney said. “It has been a great hobby for me and I just played Monday night in Bowling Green so I can still play and still be competitive. For me it has been a great asset for my life as far as physical fitness and it gives me the ability to share the word of God with people.”
Whitney adds that being part of the hockey world has become sort of a secondary market for him as he has performed a number of weddings for former hockey teammates and players.
Whitney, after 42 years of farming and running a John Deere dealership, got the calling to become a man of God. After 11 years in Lafayette, Ohio, he began spreading the word of God at The Church on Allentown and has been there the last 15 years.
During the summers he heads to Lakeside, a gated-community nestled on the banks of Lake Erie. The throwback slice of Ohio heaven on earth serves as home to Lakeside for Youth program among sports, church and band camps.
Sporting a parody orange T-shirt with Jesus’ name instead of Reese’s Cup, it is hard to envision Whitney mixing it up on the rink.
“It is a peaceful place,” said Whitney who has been coming to Lakeside for more than three decades.
Like being on the ice, Whitney said he feels at home at Lakeside and instead of checking bodies he is hoping to elevate them on a spiritual level.
“I pastor a church and change the world,” Whitney said. “That is the hope. I can’t change the world but God can change it through me.”