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Copper Country Oldtimers build a pond hockey reputation

03/07/2014, 3:45pm MST
By Greg Bates - Special to

The Copper Country Oldtimers League doesn’t discriminate over age. A person can be 30 years old or 60 — it doesn’t matter, as long as they love to play hockey.

The beer league in Houghton and Hancock, Mich., boasts some pretty good hockey. The guys who play on the six teams have fun and enjoy one another’s company. It’s a strong bond.

“The collective group of us grew up in the Houghton/Hancock area and just played on the ponds, all of us,” Phil Raffaelli said. “A lot of the guys played in high school and elsewhere.”

Raffaelli plays for M&M Powersports, while Ryan DeForge competes for the Monte Carlo team.

“Houghton/Hancock is a small area,” DeForge said. “I actually coached one of the kids on our team in junior hockey, so we are just friends. We play together all winter long, it’s just natural to team up.”

The guys are rivals on the ice every time they skate except for the three days they are competing in the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships in early February.

For the second straight year, the Copper Country Oldtimers League had four teams travel 100 miles to Eagle River, Wis., to play the annual tournament. This year, a local bank, River Valley Bank, sponsored the teams to help make the journey more affordable.

“Our team in the 50-and-older [division] has been coming for five or six years and they kept telling us how much fun it is,” DeForge said. “One day, I just started thinking about getting a team together and called some guys that have been to some other pond hockey tournaments.”

In 2013, the Copper Country Oldtimers League went home victorious.

“We pulled off a clean sweep,” Raffaelli said. “We played the 30 Silver, 40+, 50+ and 60+, and won all four divisions.”

“We had a great picture last year by USA Hockey with all four teams with our trophies,” DeForge said. “Not too many areas can say that.”

Not bad for a bunch of guys who love to play hockey in the frozen tundra of uppermost reaches of the Upper Peninsula.

“We’re pretty competitive in the Houghton/Hancock area,” DeForge said. “We’re coming for fun, but we’re also coming to win it.”

Raffaelli and DeForge have teamed up the last two years to play for the River Valley Oldtimers in the Silver 30+ Division. Last year the Oldtimers, who have an average age of 35, won the 16-team division. This year, the Oldtimers repeated as champions. The team is now 12-0 in the Pond Hockey Championships.

The other three Copper Country Oldtimers League teams also fared well this season: in the 40+ Tier 1 Division, the River Valley Sharks placed runner-up; the River Valley Pioneers also finished second in the 50+ Tier 1 Division; and the River Valley Monte Carlo won the 60+ Tier 1 Division.

The guys in the 60+ Division have quite the storied past on the ice.

“They’ve been playing together since they were in their 20s, so we’re kind of the next generation coming up,” Raffaelli said. “We’re hoping to keep the Copper Country Oldtimers League going.”

The Pond Hockey Championships is the only outdoor tournament Raffaelli and DeForge play in during the year. Every March, the Copper Country Oldtimers host a tournament that draws around 32 to 40 teams in six divisions from Michigan and Wisconsin. This year marks the 31st year of the tournament.

There is always solid competition in the Oldtimers’ tournament. However, nothing compares to playing in the Pond Hockey Championships.

“If it wasn’t with these guys, I wouldn’t come play,” Raffaelli said. “If you’re not playing with your friends, why play?”

In some cases, it is 30 years of friendship bonded on the ice.

“Everyone gets along and has a good time,” DeForge said. “The way we play hockey, it’s unselfish hockey. We’re just all friends and it’s great.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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