EAGLE RIVER, Wis. - The ninth annual Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships kicked off today in Eagle River, Wis., with over 300 teams doing battle on Dollar Lake over the weekend. This year will present a new challenge to these pond hockey warriors, as they will be subjected to frigid temperatures that will drop to nearly 25 degrees below zero over the next three days.
"From a cold stand point, it's like a day at the beach compared to other weather we've had," said Scott Aldrich, a USA Hockey manager of adult hockey, who is serving as tournament director. "Making sure everyone is staying warm and safe is the priority. Cold weather is what we want and we're trying to find the happy medium. I think we're going to find that the next couple of days."
Of course, the frigid conditions will play a significant role in the overall production of the event. Many instrumental tournament amenities, including hospitality tents, operational efficiency, and road and ice conditions will be effected by the deep freeze.
Ice conditions on the 30 sheets of ice will be monitored and maintained by the expert staff of Serving The American Rinks, an organization dedicated to the upkeep of ice rinks across the United States.
Cory Porter, director of training programs for STAR, is on hand for the duration of the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships and will oversee ice conditions. According to Porter, the arctic temperatures, while painful for participants, will provide a pristine playing surface on the scenic Dollar Lake.
“I would say this year, aside from the bitter cold temperatures, the ice conditions are better than we’ve ever had here,” Porter said. “We took a different approach to building the rinks this time around and worked with the Eagle River Fire Department further in advance, which helped a lot with the construction.”
While Porter and his crew have battled the sub-zero temperatures to create excellent ice surfaces, he noted it would make it more difficult to keep the rink conditions near perfect throughout the heavy use of over 600 games in just three days.
“The cold makes it harder to keep the ice as smooth because the surface is super brittle,” he said. “For example, an indoor rink will keep its ice around 22-23 degrees. We’re at negative-seven degrees outside today, so there’s no way to soften the ice and keep it clean.”
In addition to the 30 game rinks on Dollar Lake this year, Porter and his staff were charged with the creation of an enormous 300-by-130 foot rink, complete with over-sized hockey nets on either end. The gigantic surface simulates playing on a regulation-sized NHL rink as an 8-and-under player.
“For us, that one was kind of a one off so it wasn’t difficult to build but it was time-consuming,” said Porter, after multiple hours of maintenance of the smaller rinks. “We had to use skid loaders to move snow backs, and that took about half a day to build the banks. It will keep about the same as the smaller rinks, with the ERFD helping to flood the ice.”
Despite the polar forecast, the 2014 Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championship expects to be the most successful event to date, bringing over 2,300 players to Eagle River.
With the growth of the tournament has come innovation, with the debut of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey Events app to Android and iOS devices last week. Through the app, players and fans will be able to stay up to date with the most recent news, standings, and stats from the tournament, as well as contributing content of their own through an interactive experience.
"Any way we can comminicate better is a good thing for us," said Aldrich. "Especially if we are able to get scores out to people as quickly as possible. From a communications standpoint that will really add to our event. Communicating and bringing people together will always be beneficial."
As the puck continues to drop throughout the weekend, participants will turn their eyes to Sochi, Russia, where the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Olympic Hockey Teams will be participating in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, proving that USA Hockey is truly able to connect all levels of the sport of hockey in the United States.
If you think you’re in pretty good shape – or even if you know you’re not – it’s possible to step into, say, a touch football game or a casual softball game without completely embarrassing yourself or winding up on the couch for a week with myriad pulled muscles.
But if you want an honest assessment of your current fitness level, try jumping into a hockey game. You will get a splash of cold water – or better yet, ice shavings – on your face.
While it’s true that many adult hockey league players are perhaps primarily motivated by the camaraderie and enjoyment of the sport, the fitness benefit cannot be overlooked, says Kevin Universal, a member of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey Council and the president of the Carolina Amateur Hockey Association.
Once you start, you don’t want to stop. But once you stop, you’ll feel it once you start again.
The beauty of hockey
A shift in hockey combines the controlled dash of a 400-meter race with the urgency of an even shorter race.
“There are perishable skills – the combination of having the short, sprinter-type lung capacity, then getting back for a quick rest and sprint up the ice over and over,” Universal said. “That’s challenging for a lot of people."
That’s why it’s important to keep playing, even if it’s just once a week. If you fall out of that routine, you will feel it.
“I think we have at least a handful of guys on my team who travel a lot and don’t have time to work out except for hockey,” Universal said. “That’s their one or two days of exercise a week, and it’s so beneficial. Aside from just hanging out and having fun, joking around with the guys, they’ll use that as a primary means of exercise.”
Other workouts don’t measure up
Unless you like to race the person next to you on the treadmill or try to beat yesterday’s distance on the bike or elliptical, there isn’t much true competition in gym exercises. That doesn’t mean you aren’t working, but you aren’t working the same way you are when you truly compete.
“Being a part of the game and having something on the line, it makes you dig a little deeper and makes you get into it more and get more benefit,” Universal said. “When you’re not doing that and just out recreationally exercising and trying to burn calories, you don’t get the benefit. I have friends that run or lift weights, but if they aren’t getting that type of hockey workout consistently, they feel it after games and you see it in their play.”
Universal notes a recent example to emphasize his point: a guy who had played on one of his teams a decade ago before moving away has just returned and started back in hockey a few weeks ago.
“He had regularly exercised at the gym, but he was so gassed the first four or five games,” Universal added. “He’s finally getting his legs back. It’s funny. He regularly works out, lifts weights competitively. It’s not the same when you have to go out and sprint.”
Never too late to start
That said, don’t let the conditioning learning curve associated with hockey be a deterrent. If you used to play and are trying to get back into it, it’s never too late. Same goes for adults who have never played before.
Universal falls into that latter category. He says he grew up playing street hockey, but he never played in an organized league on the ice until he was 34. He picked it up after his kids took up the sport and he “got the itch” when some other newbies convinced him to try a beginners camp.
“I regularly run into people as adults and I encourage them to pick up the game,” Universal said. “You don’t have to have grown up with it. You just have to have the desire, and you can have some fun out there and get fit.”
Now 48, Universal can’t imagine life without the sport in so many ways – with fitness being primary among them.
“I feel the difference. I feel the lung capacity and I’m able to work harder in other areas,” Universal said. “This past weekend I did a hike with a 1,700-foot elevation drop over 1.3 miles. That’s like doing 170 flights of stairs. My legs aren’t sore, and I attribute that so much to skating. I’ve tried lacrosse, football, track, swimming, baseball, and this is definitely by far the most beneficial workout.”