The U.S. Pond Hockey Championships were held this past weekend in Minneapolis. It’s supposed to be kind of kitsch and old school—“hockey the way nature intended” is their motto. While I did not see anyone using magazines affixed to their shins with duct tape, as the website’s folksy history section maintains, it was played outdoors on Lake Nokomis on backyard-size rinks that are shoveled off by the players prior to each game. It was nice this year—in the 20s with a brisk northwest wind, fresh off the tundra. Bracing.
Though there were some fancy accoutrement—a sound system, beer tent, and a Zamboni that was used on at least some of the rinks—the setup is pretty simple. The rinks are defined by two-foot high plastic boards, and launching the puck is discouraged. The goal is a 6" high wooden box, like pallets used at garden stores to stack mulch. Checking and slap shots are not allowed, there is no goalie, and speed, accuracy, and teamwork are encouraged. So are beer and camaraderie. Teams compete in one of five divisions—open (the most skilled players), cedar, rink rat, women’s, and 40+.
Beforehand, I was drawn to the Championships’ Free Agent Board, a forum for teams that need extra players, and players who need a team. How do you market yourself to a bunch of dudes (I’m using that like mankind) you want to play hockey with? Scrolling down the adverts, I was surprised by a lot of things, but mostly by the populism—not the lowest common denominator type thing, but true everyskater involvement.
I was surprised by the honesty of the free agent ads, eg, “If you need a last minute body, I’m your guy. 58 years old and been playing for my entire life. C2-House league player. Additionally, I can drink beer (or Jack) w/the best of them.”
The willingness to travel long distances with zero potential for a big gold cup or lucrative contract, this, from Mike from New Jersey: “Thinking about coming out for the tournament, I played in high school and play weekly in open hockey. Looking for team information about playing in Cedar or Rink Rat.”
Pure love of the game: “Looking to join a team in the Open Division. I’m 34, played hockey all my life and in college and currently playing twice a week. I’m travelling from Boston and could not be more pumped about this tournament. I can commit immediately and pay immediately....”
This candidate further demonstrated true understanding and desperation by adding, “Some one in the open division please pick me. I’ll bring the beers and I’m also starting to grow some mean hockey hair right now so I should have dual exhaust pipes come January.”
And the number of master’s players willing to break a hip: “Playing since 6 years old, now fifty eight; any division, love to get on the ice.”
I reached out to Mark Irwin after reading his ad: “25 year old male looking to join a Cedar or Rink Rat team for the tournament this year. I played through high school and I have previous tournament experience. Currently play beer league in Chicago twice a week.”
The ad is absolutely correct, and apparently pretty compelling, too. Irwin was contacted by four teams, settling on Hot Tub Beers, a core group of five guys who picked up Irwin and two more recruits from HockeyFinder.
“When they first contacted me, they were registered in the open division, and I told them right off, ‘I’m not really an open player,’” Irwin said, speaking from his car as he made the six-hour drive back to Chicago. “They said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re not either.’”
Hot Tub Beers had registered for the only spot available, in the open division, but were able to drop down to Cedar when another team dropped out.
Irwin grew up outside Toronto (“hockey is religion there”), played hockey in high school in Vermont, played club hockey in college in Boston, and lived in the Twin Cities for three years. He moved to Chicago for a job last year. This was Irwin’s fourth year as a free agent, every one a success and a good time, he said.
“Sure, the best teams have chemistry and plays and all that. We’re not going pro and we know that. But it always works out. We’re out there, having fun, playing a game we love. You meet great people, have a beer together—there’s this great camaraderie. If you go in with an open mind, it always works out.”
Irwin skated with his team for the first time 10 minutes before their first of four games. “There aren’t really positions in pond hockey,” he told me. “You kind of find out in first few seconds who is fast, who is up there attacking, and who should be defending. You make a few mistakes, then regroup between games and learn from that. By the fourth game, we were a unit, working on great passes. My strength is as a defender. Yeah, that’s not the glory position.”
The Pond Hockey Championships draw nationwide, Irwin said, partly because the organization puts on such a well-organized event. He played teams from Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, and “lost handily” to a team from Los Angeles.
“You’ve heard of six degrees of separation? Pond hockey is much smaller—maybe a degree-and-a-half or two. You start seeing these same people all over,” Irwin said. “I don’t make a conscious effort to keep in contact with guys I’ve played with; it just happens. You run into them everywhere, at hockey events, and are like, ‘Didn’t I play you in 2013?’”
Heading back through the vast dairylands of Wisconsin, Irwin was upbeat. “Our team was pretty crap this year, but we were hard on the puck. We didn’t win but we had heart. We were down by a lot of points but we didn’t stop, we kept our heads up.”
Then I talked to John Nix: “54 year old, been playing for one year, on a AHA [American Hockey Association] team currently, interested in playing for any team in need at this level.”
Other than teaching his kids to skate, Nix hadn’t played hockey since he was a kid in Chicago, goofing around on backyard rinks. A self-described high energy guy—“I snowboard, run, bike, swim”—Nix decided to learn how to skate better after watching his son play hockey in an adult league. He took a five-month program through the American Hockey Association that includes nine weeks of league play.
“I was going to go down and watch the Pond Hockey tournament anyway,” Nix said, “and I saw that Free Agent Board, so I thought I’d stick my name in there. I did that Friday night, and on Saturday morning I got a text from an average group, you know, hockey dads. One guy was going to miss the last game and needed a replacement. He said, ‘If you want to join, show up at rink 4 at 2:40.’”
The team was in the 40+ division, based only on age, so some players were highly experienced and others, not so much. Usually, players only skate for a minute or so before subbing out, but when he showed up just before the game, Nix’s team, the Brown Dale Bombers, had only four players, no subs. The opposing team had three subs and quite a bit of talent.
“We lost 24 to 1,” Nix said breezily, “but I got an assist on our one goal. It was fun; they were great guys. We had some beers and hung around to watch other games.”
Nix, too, had used HockeyFinder to locate pick-up games around the Twin Cities with other novices, people from 18 to 70, “women too,” he said. “There’s no checking. I mean, it’s fun and recreational—the worst that can happen is you pull a muscle or get hit by a puck.”