It's 5:15 a.m. when psychotherapist Dave Lane turns the key to open the doors of the Ice Line Quad Rinks in West Chester.
In a few minutes, a group of 25 men and women will arrive in the dark, carrying their gear for an early-morning game of no-referee, no-score, no-check hockey.
This is the routine five days week in rinks around the region. The no-pressure games of the ShinnyUSA recreational hockey program often feature a 72-year-old retired supervisor playing side by side with a former Philadelphia Flyer.
"It gets my butt out of bed and in a little bit of shape," said Terry Carkner, 45, of Malvern, a former Flyers defenseman who, until he joined ShinnyUSA last month, hadn't skated competitively since he retired in 1999.
ShinnyUSA's hallmark is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's hockey for the fun of it. All ages are welcome, but some may ache a little more than they used to when the game is over.
The program includes players with varying levels of skill, and competition is low-key. The name perhaps says it all. "Shinny" is an informal type of hockey played on ice or the street. After an hour and 15 minutes of play, it's handshakes, showers, and off to the 9-to-5 of everyday life.
That's what separates ShinnyUSA from other programs, said Jim Malesich of West Chester, who cofounded the league with Lane. The program has a crack-of-dawn start time and offers low-scale competition where the emphasis is on playing, not winning.
Members range in age from 18 to 72; the average is in the 30s. Players are white-collar, blue-collar, working and unemployed. They include doctors, carpenters, policemen, and psychologists.
"It doesn't interfere with your work or family because nobody's doing anything at 6 a.m.," said Pat Cronin, who recruits players for the program.
Some of the program's 450 members are skating again after years off the ice. Some are beginners. Others joined the group after playing in college or in amateur leagues where play is often late at night, every game feels like a playoff, and somebody has something to prove.
"We're all around the same age," said Pat Quigley, 49, a police officer at the University of Pennsylvania. "If you fall down, they stop playing and make sure you're OK. They don't skate over you."
Malesich, 46, a finance executive, and Lane, 61, who is also an ordained minister, founded ShinnyUSA in 2001. It had begun as a morning pickup game in the late 1990s. It now runs 6 a.m. sessions at rinks in West Chester, Oaks, Aston, Colmar, and Philadelphia.
ShinnyUSA offers special programs, including for parents and children, as well as Friday-night hockey parties with refreshments. Every June, it hosts the Independence Cup Classic, which raises money for charity.
The group is also trying to start a women's league. About 10 women currently skate in coed games with the program, including Lane's wife, Cathy, a statistician, and Mandy Adamson, an occupational therapist from Exton. Both have played in women's leagues.
"I like playing with the guys," Adamson said, "They won't hit you like some women will."
But Malesich and Lane acknowledge ShinnyUSA isn't any hockey wonderland. Lane is recovering from a broken bursa (hit with a puck) and Frank Clamer, 53, of West Chester, broke an ankle when he "ran into the boards" with another player.
A few fights have erupted. Lane or Malesich moderates the disputes, and players are required to apologize. If a situation doesn't work out, players get their $175 per 16-week season fee refunded and are shown the door.
On Thursday, Carkner skated in an effort to sharpen his skills for a Flyers alumni game scheduled for Dec. 31 at Citizens Bank Park.
Ralph Smith also took a turn on the ice.
Smith, 72, of Kennett Square, a retired DuPont Co. supervisor, began playing hockey when he was 8. With the exception of a three-year stint when he replaced hockey with basketball, Smith has been a regular on the ice. He joined ShinnyUSA in 2002.
"It's all people out here to get exercise and enjoy the sport," he said, "and in this program, you get the chance to play when you're really old."