The Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championship will celebrate its 10th anniversary when the pucks drop Feb. 6-8 at the Eagle River Derby Track in Eagle River, Wis.
Naturally, plenty has changed since the inception. What started as a tournament with 40 teams on six ice sheets has turned into an anticipated event that regularly draws more than 300 teams. Along the way, the Pond Hockey National Championship has grown along with its increased numbers.
But participants say, at its core, the best part of the tournament – a culture that could best be described as organized pick-up hockey on the grandest scale – has remained constant. And that keeps people coming back for more.
“As soon as you’re done, you crack a beer with the team you just played against,” says Eric Scheel, 39, of Milwaukee, whose Magners team is in the tournament for the eighth consecutive year. “It’s about seeing guys you played against last year. And now you make friends over social media and you have new friends on Facebook.”
Scheel says he first found out about the tournament from USA Hockey and then visited the site when his family was on an annual summer vacation in Eagle River. He knew right away that he wanted to play – and he also knew what he wanted in a group of teammates.
“I said that we have to find six guys you want to spend a weekend with in a one-bedroom cabin,” Scheel says. “It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about getting back to the basics of hockey in its purest form.”
Scheel tells a story similar to many others – even if his pond hockey experience didn’t exactly have the happiest beginning. In his team’s first year, Magners lost all three games. And that was only the beginning of their problems.
“We totaled a van we had borrowed on the way home,” Scheel says, laughing now. “It was a big snowstorm, and we were caught in a 15-car pileup. You’re mad at the time, but we had so much fun that we kept coming back.”
Scheel pauses for a moment, laughs again, and adds: “Now we rent a van so we don’t have to deal with borrowing cars.”
Jared Deli, 24, of Oshkosh, Wis., says he and his hockey buddies love the pond hockey tournament so much and have so much interest in it that their regular group of skaters splits into two teams when it heads to Eagle River.
Most of them met while working at Oshkosh Ice Arena, Deli says. Oshkosh has a small-but-growing hockey community, he says. Heading to Eagle River gives the dedicated hockey lovers in the town a chance to unite.
“Eagle River for us, especially as we age, marks an opportunity to get together for a whole weekend and all share the passion that brought us together as friends,” Deli says.
Splitting into two teams -- "Sharp Dressed Men" and "Placek and the Heartbreakers" – might seem like it would create some tension, but Deli says it’s all part of the fun.
“The Eagle River tournament is nice for us as well because we can to watch each other play. After playing a game, you can get your 12 pack of Labatt's, pull up some chairs into the snow banks and cheer on some of your best friends,” he says.
But what if the two teams have to play each other? That happened one year, Deli says, but it only added to the experience. It was a heated game, but afterwards “we all laughed, joked, and got a great team picture,” he says.
After losing every game in their first go-round, Scheel and his Magners teammates won the championship four years ago. Now they’re waiting until their youngest teammate turns 30 (next year) so they can play in what he jokingly calls the “old man division.”
Win or lose this year and beyond, though, Scheel knows what he – and countless others – are really there to find.
“It’s me and the guys back again, reliving the stories from last year,” he says. “It’s pure hockey. You’re on a frozen lake and you’re back to what it was when it started.”
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.”