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.