WILLIAM WEGMAN, THE INTERNATIONALLY ACCLAIMED ARTIST FINDS HIS STRIDE AT 71 AND PLAYS MORE HOCKEY THAN YOU DO.
You’re taking a quiet stroll through Chelsea on a Sunday morning. As you walk across the north side of 18th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue, your quiet contemplation is broken by a black disk falling through the tree above you. It cracks you in the melon: A hockey puck. What the? Where the?
We first crossed paths with William Wegman, an artist whose work is in the permanent collections in MoMa, the Whitney, Centre Pompidou and the Smithsonian, albeit unknowingly, at Westside Skate and Stick. Looking up from testing the flex of a stick way above our pay grade, we noticed two weimaraners obediently following a man through the exit. Fast-forward to a year later and we’re buzzing the front door to his Chelsea building and those same two dogs, Topper and Flo, are barking loudly. Wearing a loose-fitting, plain khaki t-shirt, shorts and New Balance sneakers, Wegman greets us with a smile and a handshake and invites us in.
After some small talk he suggests we head outside to his garden patio but we don’t stop there. Through a shade tree and up a totally vertical metal staircase we reach a type of mezzanine rooftop. And there it is: a private shooting gallery. A pile of about fifty pucks on one end and an old hockey net on the other. Casually strewn on top of a large HVAC unit are several tattered but quite serviceable hockey sticks. Dangling inside the net are chunks of metal and a pipe about six inches and parallel with the crossbar. It’s for H-O-R-S-E he tells us. Awesome.
We rip a few shots from about sixty feet away. Some hit the wall behind the net. Wegman tells us that the net used to be behind us and that his neighbors would complain that the impact of pucks on their shared wall would loosen the dust in their living room. After a puck errantly careens off the crossbar, we see how it could ricochet over the fence and onto 18th Street. And in times past, it has. That is until Wegman pulled a favor at Chelsea Piers by asking one of the maintenance guys if they had any leftover netting. At 71-years-old, his shots on net are hard, deliberate and accurate and are indicative of how often he’s on the ice — up to five times over the course of a weekend. “ ‘I thought I married an artist, not a jock’ ” he jokes, referring to what his wife tells him after a marathon ice hockey weekend at Chelsea Piers.
He plays as often and with as much enthusiasm as someone who’s just discovered the game, and in a sense, he has. Except for the occasional winter stick and puck skates on Maine ponds where he escapes NYC with his family, it wasn’t until he was 59 that he got back on the ice (as a western Massachusetts boy he played pond hockey until he was 16). Before that, Wegman had the opportunity in his early twenties and then again in his late forties to get back on the ice at teaching stops at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Cornell but each time colleagues and friends invited him he stodgily declined.
His hockey renaissance began when his son’s coach at Chelsea Piers, Dan O’Brien, persuaded him to play a session of open hockey. “I’m not good at walking, I love to bike. When I first started to play I looked like a character out of Mary Poppins: I had my hockey bag, my son’s hockey bag, two sticks and my son and I’d bike to the rink. And once I think I even had an umbrella. It was really crazy,” he laughs. He loves hockey but he’s not a gear guy. He has no stick-taping ritual and his handle is just a mess of tape, citing that it makes it easier to locate when there’s a bundle of sticks on the bench.
They now play on a team together at Chelsea with senior Wegman at center and his son Atlas also at center, ranging from Division Six to Division Eight. “Playing hockey has made me more flexible, lighter, and healthier than I was before I started to play,” Wegman admits, adding “before I could barely pick something up off the floor and have to ask somebody else to do it. I was probably 20 pounds heavier.” Aside from ice hockey, Wegman is an avid mountain biker, enjoys tennis and does pilates to keep his back in check, though he recognizes his limits on the ice. “I fall down really easy. If I get hit I just go down. I feel like if I try and stay up, I’ll shatter like an old bottle or something.”
No matter the age or skill level, hockey will always be an aggressive contact sport. Wegman says he used to occasionally get into fights. “One time somebody came storming out onto the ice to break us up, which was probably more of a shoving match…I think I held his stick and he got mad at that...it was really just two guys nearly 70 going at it in a shoving match. We sorta laughed about it afterwards.”
The expansive multi-room, multi-story loft building encompasses Wegman World. It’s where his art and his wife Christine Burgin’s publishing outfit is based, his dogs run obediently yet wild, and where his two children live. And scattered throughout, hockey tchotchkes are hidden in plain sight: Hockey sticks, hockey jerseys, hockey trophies, NHL figurines, a signed and framed photo of an anonymous Boston Bruin (says Wegman: “I have no idea who he is, it was a gift”).
He shrugs off any notion of his art ever intersecting with ice hockey. Like most of us, hockey is just a mental restart button. “Since I don’t drink or smoke or do any of those things, it’s my social life. Everyone always talks about where they’re going out after [games], I just go home and that’s fine.” He puts it simply, honestly and truthfully — and it rings true no matter mini-mite or a senior: “It’s just really fun to score a goal.” •