EAGLE RIVER, Wis. -- By the time the ice chips settled on Dollar Lake on Sunday afternoon, 16 teams were crowned champions of the 2017 Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships. Many of those teams were experiencing in the thrill of victory for the first time.
Among them were a pair of women's teams that skated away with adult hockey's version of the Stanley Cup and bragging rights that will extend into next year.
"They say you should act like you've been here before, but we haven't been here before so we're kind of going crazy," said one member of Four Loco, the champions of the Women's Silver division.
The team from Milwaukee, consists of six players ranging in age from 26-29, are veterans of this event.
"For us to come up here every year and get to spend a weekend together and be around everyone who loves hockey as much as we do, that’s probably the best part," Colleen Crowley, one of the veterans on the team, said in an earlier interview with USA Hockey.
While the bulk of the team has also competed at USA Hockey's National Championships in the Women's Senior B division, taking their game outdoors is way more fun. And winning it all makes it that much sweeter.
That's why the women were in no hurry to pack up and make the four-hour ride home. They stayed on the lake taking group pictures and individual shots as they skated around the lake hoisting the trophy, which consists of a silver bowl welded to the top of a small beer keg.
It was a similar feeling of elation for members for the team Huh?, who captured the crown in the Women's Beginner division. For original member Karen Shreve and other members of this squad from Rochester, Minn., it was a great feeling to see their patience, passion and persistence rewarded with the spoils of victory.
"We have this mascot, Pablo who sits in a prominent spot in my house. He's about to be replaced by this pond hockey trophy," said Shreve.
Asked how Pablo feels about being replaced, Shreve said, "He'll get over it."
Sled hockey royalty was in the house at the Derby Track on Saturday night as three-time Paralympian Andy Yohe spent several hours posing for photos and mingling with adult players during the annual party.
The Davenport, Iowa native served was the captain of the U.S. Paralympic Sled Team that won gold in Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi, Russia in 2014. He also won a bronze in 2006. Yo he is gunning to become the first U.S. sled player to compete in four Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Yohe paid tribute to U.S. Sled Hockey Team coach Jeff Sauer, by leading the crowd in a toast to his former coach who passed away on Feb. 2.
Yohe also presented a team jersey autographed by the 2015 U.S. Sled Hockey Team to Jonathan Annicks, a teen who was paralyzed after being struck by a bullet outside his Chicago home last April.
Members of the U.S. Army's Special Forces unit spend their careers tackling the most difficult jobs in some of the most dangerous places in the world. They pride themselves on accomplishing even the most difficult missions, no matter what the odds.
But for one adult team consisting of active duty and retired members of Special Forces units there was one obstacle even they couldn't overcome.
During the first game of the tournament in the 40+ Tier II division, Team Fort Carson lost it's biggest offensive threat, Scott Pyrchalla, who went down with a hamstring injury, leaving the squad a man down.
In keeping with the Army creed of never leaving a man behind, Pyrchalla's teammates carried their injured comrade off the ice and back to the warming tent and then pressed on with the tournament.
Still, the loss proved to be too much for the remaining players to overcome as they finished the preliminary round with one win and two losses, which squashed any chance of advancing to the Saturday's quarterfinals.
"This tournament is tough enough, but once you lose one of your most skilled players it's a hard thing to overcoming me," said Shawn Herlihy, who is stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.
Other members of the team made the trip from Fort Bragg in North Carolina, while others who have retired from the service came from as far away as Oregon. The team was sponsored by the United Heroes League, an organization committed to ensuring that children of service members have the resources needed to participate in a variety of sports.
While separated by time and distance, this band of brothers share a special bond that translates to the ice.
"It's always a great when we can get together," Herlihy said. "We wish we could play in this tournament every year, but deployments and other commitments make it hard. Still, we share a tight bond. It doesn't matter where we're stationed or how long it's been since we've seen each other, whenever we get together it's just like old times."
Pond hockey players demonstrated their generosity and passion for the game by opening their wallets and bidding on several autographed collectible items that were auctioned off during Saturday night's party at the Derby Track.
Al Deming, president of the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association, served as the auctioneer, prompting bidders to show their competitive nature by bidding against each other to score some valuable pieces of hockey memorabilia.
A replica helmet signed by Chicago Blackhawks and U.S. Olympic star Patrick Kane brought in $320, while a jersey signed by the U.S. Sled Hockey Team fetched $330.
Other items, which including a stick signed by the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team and a jersey signed by the U.S. Women's National Team, also brought in big bucks.
In total, $1,340 was raised for the USA Hockey Foundation.
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.”