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Pond Event Keeps Getting Better With Age

02/09/2017, 9:15pm MST
By Harry Thompson - USA Hockey Magazine

12th Iteration of Tournament Features New Twists on Classic Format

EAGLE RIVER, Wis. -- Time has a way of washing away some of the details of the first USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championship, but there's one thing Don Mulder can vividly remember about the inaugural event in 2006.

He still cringes when he recalls just how bone-chilling cold it was.

"It was so cold the lead pencils didn't even work," recalled Mulder, who along with his good friend and fellow Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association board member Don Kohlman was a driving force behind bringing pond hockey to town 12 years ago.

A lot has changed since that first puck dropped. For one thing, it's warmer, even by Wisconsin winter standards. With forecasts calling for highs in the low 30s for most of the weekend, this year's tournament will be played in relatively balmy conditions, especially compared to the biting cold and bitter winds that plagued those pioneering teams.

For another, the event has dramatically grown, from 42 teams that first year to more than 290 this year. The high-water mark was reached in 2013 when 327 hit the ice. Another sign of the how far the tournament has come can be found in the 24 women's teams registered to compete in five divisions this time around.

After some early cajoling to get teams to participate, the tournament has become one of the toughest tickets in town, so to speak, as teams race to register the minute the online registration opens. The waiting list can swell into the hundreds.

"We had to beg, borrow and steal teams to come here so we could get this off the ground. We even offered to pay some teams’ registration fees," Mulder said. "After that, it's taken off every year thanks to word of mouth. But we had no idea it would blossom into what it has become today."

For a handful of teams that have made the annual pilgrimage to Wisconsin's northwoods, the event has stayed true to its roots even though it has grown exponentially in size over the years.

"Every year it just keeps getting better," said local resident Mark "Mugsy" DePuydt, who has played in every tournament since its inception. "We've won this tournament before and played in the championship game three years in a row; and last year we won only one game. So not only is the tournament getting bigger, it's getting better."

One thing hasn't changed is how this small town has embraced the out-of-town visitors who pump a significant amount of money into the local economy during the depths of winter.

"This is the biggest event of the year in this town," DePuydt said. "It's impact on the local economy is unbelievable. You have people coming to town spending a lot of money over the course of the weekend at a time when there's really nothing else going on. Local businesses count on this to get them through the season."

Even the tournament registration process has taken on a life of its own. For years, the tedious but necessary process took place in a crammed basement of the Chanticleer Inn, the tournament's host since its inception. But now teams file into the nearby Derby Track for an evening that features a beanbag tournament, a puck shooting gallery and plenty of refreshments supplied by the long-time sponsor, Labatt Blue.

Organizers continue to look for new ways to expand the experience without taking away from the real reason teams come to town -- to play pond hockey.

"Can we improve this?" Mulder asked. "Obviously, there's always things we can do to keep improving this. When you think it can't get any better, that's the time to bring in some new blood with fresh ideas. But for now, the adult department continues to do a great job hosting the event.

"I know I'm biased because I've been here from the beginning, but I think this is the best thing USA Hockey does all year. And that's saying a lot."

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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.”

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