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.”