University of Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia coached on one of the biggest stages this winter when he took the helm of the U.S. National Junior Team. But as great as that experience with USA Hockey was, another event this winter had him beaming from ear to ear. Lucia, who grew up playing on the outdoor rinks in Grand Rapids, Minn., coached the Gophers in the first outdoor hockey event in the program’s modern era—a doubleheader at TCF Bank Stadium, the school’s 50,000-seat football field, featuring both the men’s and women’s teams.
With that, a storied program joined the outdoor hockey craze that has been sweeping the nation in recent years. Pond hockey tournaments have exploded. The Labatt Blue/USA Pond Hockey National Championships, which started out with just 20 teams, had roughly 350 registered teams in 2013 and is primed for great success again for this year’s tournament Feb. 7–9 in Eagle River, Wis.
The NHL, trying to capitalize on the success of its outdoor Winter Classic, scheduled six more of these games this year in various venues—including a game in Michigan’s Big House that drew more than 105,000 fans, the biggest crowd ever to watch a hockey game.
All of these participants and fans are figuring out what generations before them already knew: there is a great joy in outdoor hockey, no matter what level it is played at.
“We had a hockey rink in my back yard that my dad would put in every winter,” University of Minnesota junior Kyle Rau recalls. “It’s something special. … Me and my brothers would go out there and bring some buddies and go play after school.”
Fewer hockey players can point to an upbringing playing outdoor experiences, however. Rau—who just turned 21 a few months ago—is now more the exception than the rule.
That’s where events like the Labatt Blue USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships in Eagle River, Wis., come into play. They help bridge a gap between generations and helps expose a new group of players to the great outdoors.
Scott Aldrich, who manages the Adult Hockey program for USA Hockey and oversees the pond hockey tournament, says when the event first began in 2006 there were 40 teams playing on six rinks. This year, there will be 336 teams on 30 rinks – a testament to how much people have latched onto the idea of playing outside.
“It was the right time to tap into it,” Aldrich says. “The outdoor game in the NHL really wasn’t there, but there was this market for people who wanted to play outside back to the roots. Maybe for people who didn’t even get a chance to play on an outdoor rink, this provided a great opportunity and place. It just took off from there. … Hockey is such a traditional sport. It’s very aware and proud of its tradition. This really has a lot to do with not just an older generation that played outside growing up but now a new generation that’s able to experience it and have the thrill of playing outside in the elements.”
In the elements, the ice isn’t always as smooth. Players have to learn to adjust to cold wind and freezing temperatures. And that’s all the fun, Aldrich says.
“The natural part of it is something we’ve always tried to do with our tournament – shoveling and scraping the rink,” Aldrich says. “There are no Zambonis after we play. It’s literally on a lake. Sometimes it takes a beating over the course of a day. We’ve tried to keep a real pond feel to it. Our boards are snow banks. There’s nothing fancy. It’s truly a throwback to when you were doing it as a kid.”
That’s what Aldrich remembers from his younger days growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He said there is a group of players from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that plays in the pond hockey championships for the chance to return to their roots.
Then again, there is an entirely new generation of players who grew up playing exclusively indoors either because they hail from warm-weather states or because indoor ice has simply become so prevalent. They get to experience the joy for the first time.
“They haven’t had that opportunity, and it’s a great thrill for them,” Aldrich says. “Our age groups go from 21 to 60, so you really get that range and various levels of experience playing outside.”