Sending one team to compete in the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships is the rule rather than the exception.
The Laughing Skulls from Laurel, Md. sweep that axiom off the ice.
“This year, we had three teams out of our seven playing on Sunday,” manager Justin Panzer said. “We had two in the semis and one in the finals. We didn’t win any championships this year. But I don’t think there was anybody else that could have had three teams playing on Sunday.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re still the world champions.”
The Laughing Skulls had two teams that competed in the Intermediate and Bronze Divisions plus one each in the Beginner, Novice and 40-and-Over Tier-II Divisions. Their Intermediate 30-plus Division team skated off with the 2012 championship.
What might have made this year’s trip to Eagle River special is the fact that the Laughing Skulls are celebrating their 10th anniversary.
“I was living in Florida and moved to Maryland for a job [in 2003],” Panzer said. “An old friend of mine [Josh Reece] and my brother [Doug Panzer] were living in the Maryland/D.C. area. We decided we’d like to form our own team and play in the local league [the Garden Ice Adult Hockey League in Laurel].
“We recruited a few players from guys they knew in the area and the rest is history.”
Even though the nation’s capital may not be a hotbed for pond hockey, several Laughing Skulls players had experience playing on ponds.
“The big thing is even though we live in this area, the majority of the guys are from somewhere else,” Panzer said. “Some grew up father north and some played extensively or a little on a pond.
“The opportunity to get involved was something we came across several years ago.”
The Laughing Skulls made their first trip to Eagle River five years ago with only five players. They had 13 the second year and, as Panzer said, “It grew from there.”
“The thing about our group is because we have so many teams, we try to find a space for guys who are getting older and slower,” Panzer said. “We don’t tell people you’re too old or lack experience. That’s true in our local league as well as for our pond hockey teams.
“Just because you’ve never played it before doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go and miss out on the experience. This year, we had the original five guys playing at an Intermediate level and we added a lot of first-timers in the Beginners Division, plus everything in between.”
More recently, the Laughing Skulls added a team in Philadelphia. They plan to add another team in Reisterstown, Md. in the summer and one in Richmond in the fall.
“I think the big thing is we have a lot of guys that love to play,” Panzer said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie about how we feel about the game and the social aspect. We always make sure somebody has a place to play with us.
“As people move away, they go to other cities and say, ‘I want to play hockey but I miss the Laughing Skulls.’ So, they introduce it to other people.”
Former players have done such a good job of “introducing” the Laughing Skulls to “other people” that they’re in the process of forming alumni teams in Chicago, Seattle and Raleigh.
“Not for a second did I envision something like this would happen,” Panzer admitted. “Locally, we have over 100 active members and we’re growing in these other places.
“What’s amazing to me is not only do we have all these other players, but we’ve been there for babies being born or have been the best man at a guy’s wedding. We met each other and became friends as members of our hockey team. All of our kids play hockey together. It goes way beyond what we do on the ice. It really has become a family thing.”
So much so that when one player was unable to make the Eagle River trip this year because of a work commitment, the others made a “Flat Stevie” and took it everywhere so they could have a “virtual experience.”
“We did that because we know how much he loves the trip,” Panzer said. “I think that really helps paint the picture of how amazing the pond hockey weekend is for all of us.”
Given how many years the Laughing Skulls have traveled to Eagle River, in one sense it’s become the equivalent of a reunion with the residents of the community.
“We’ve made year-long, life-long friends there,” Panzer said. “We keep in touch with the local residents of Eagle River. When we go there, it’s almost like we’re our own celebrity group. We’re part of the family.
“Some of the people have a reception for us. Things like that make it enjoyable and entice more people to join.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.