Pond hockey is ice hockey in its purest, most basic state. Last weekend, (February 5 though 7) the USAH took the force of nature that is ice hockey and trimmed away the glitz, the checking, the fights, and about 50 pounds of foam and plastic. According to the official rules, the only special gear a goalie can have is on their feet. Not that they’re in the kind of danger the boys in the NHL face. Slap shots are prohibited and a puck sent above the knees will cost a team. It’s hockey the hard way, a fun form of civilized mayhem where finesse and skill win the day when brute force is taken out of the equation.
This year, 2,000 players on 280 teams of pond hockey enthusiasts made their way to Eagle River, Wisconsin, for the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships. This is the eleventh annual weekend dedicated to catching up with friends, comparing scars, and savoring that second when the clock starts and the sticks, the blades, and the puck hit the ice. These are teams with names like “Goondock Saints,” “Make Me A Crabcake,” “Beer Ninjas,” “Stan Mikita’s Doughnuts,” and “Team Active Stick,” so it might be easy to assume it’s a pond hockey weekend edition of rec league goofiness. These men and women play in USAH rec leagues across the country. As far as their tiers are concerned, these weekend warriors are the best at what they do.
Like any other sport that depends on the weather, pond hockey is vulnerable to variations from expected seasonal patterns. Mother Nature’s hockey-related gifts to Wisconsin (other than the Suters) are cold, cold temperatures and layers of ice that can accommodate multiple rinks and over 200 hundred teams. Unfortunately, those just did not happen last year. Concerns about the slush caused the coordinators to move the tournament to the much smaller World Championship Derby Track.
Players gave stick taps to the quality of the ice, but there was something missing. Maybe it was the legacy factor of skating in an event in its tenth year only to have the location moved. The pond hockey championship had never taken place anywhere but Dollar Lake. Veterans of the game spoke to the feeling of connection with hockey played on a pond the way many of them played as children, so yes, the pond matters. Familiarity was important for other reasons as well. The tournament is an annual reunion for many, and the smaller pond meant fewer opportunities to visit friends and watch other teams play.
This year’s unseasonably warm temperatures in the Badger State were no longer a surprise nastygram for organizers. Pond hockey tournament coordinator, Katie Holmgren, planned accordingly and they were ready for anything the climate threw their way. In a conversation with USAH’s Greg Bates, she explained how they prepared for the possibility that the weather would not cooperate.
“This year’s tournament had 24 rinks as opposed to 28 to 30 in past years. Also USA Hockey kept the number of teams to 280, where normally there are 300 to 330.”
“We’re down a little bit, and that has nothing to do with the interest factor. We did it for safety reasons on the lake.”
“It’s been a more mild winter in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, so ice conditions were a concern again early in winter. However, a cold spell in January helped Dollar Lake complete its freeze and provide plenty of inches of ice for the competition. In past years, vehicles were allowed on the lake, but USA Hockey wanted the ice vehicle free this year, so the rinks were constructed closer to the shoreline.”
Would USAH consider moving the event? Not a chance. Even with the new restrictions and reduced venue space, the organization is happy to keep the event on Dollar Lake. According to USAH’s report, Beer Ninjas returnee Jim Shane wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I remember years ago we came in, it was our first year, they’re saying they didn’t know if they should move (the tournament) to a bigger town or something, but everyone loves it here. This town’s awesome.”
[Photo by Cameron Eickmeyer/USAH/Used With Permission]
Addenda: This red-faced writer wants to apologize to Labatt and USAH for misspelling “Labatt”. I can’t lay this one on my dyslexia. Please note that I am an American with the beverage palate of a six- year-old. Once again, I am sorry for the oversight.
Postscript: The nice people at USAH sent this highlight reel of 2016’s finest pond hockey warriors, proving that video is the next best thing to being there. Why settle for the next best thing? Mark your calendars for Winter 2017. You’ll want to be at Dollar Lake, where competition is hot and the ice (as in ice hockey) is as natural as it gets.