Last weekend a hearty band of young men from across this great land of ours repacked their bags and pointed their compasses to the northwoods in an attempt to capture an elusive glory that slipped just beyond their grip just one short year ago.  For those new to this space click here for the backstory.

Eagle River, WI is a magical place in its own right (you have yet to live until you try a butter steak from Blink Bonnie’s), however for one weekend each February (and maybe two if you are a fan of their Snowmobile Championships as well) it has the ability to transcend time and space into a living, breathing, mecca to all things hockey.  There is no sight that these eyes have seen that matches that of coming over a hill and seeing the twenty-four rinks and five hundred plus participants spread across Dollar Lake on a cold winter morn. 

It was such an amazing experience in 2012 that our head count doubled this year as we began to expand our franchise to a second team in the 30+ Intermediate division (our original cast re-enlisted in the 21+ Silver bracket).  As an original shareholder I am still awaiting my royalty check to appear for this expansion.  Our freshman class; which consisted of four new skaters, one mascot who had traded in his polar bear head for a stick & gloves, and two new mascots who were there to take his place; had heard the stories of yesteryear for a full 365 days, receiving a complete tutorial of learned lessons on the drive up north from those who had been before.  Regardless, watching their faces light up like six year olds on Christmas morning after their first game (which I admittedly slept through) made the entire experience worthwhile.

For those who did not make the effort to click the link above, for all of the memories that last year produced, our core team reassembled this year with a collective taste of vitriol in our mouths.  Our goal was to get out of the round robin aspect of the tournament and play in the games that really matter starting Saturday afternoon and beyond.  For a weekend that started with a single rental condo filled with a three foot tall bottle of vodka, four bottles of Fireball (a drink we later found bars sold out of because apparently the college girls drank it all the weekend before), uncountable beers, and approximately 3,000 paint balls, we were an amazingly focused bunch.  Advancing was not so much a desire as a mandate for our squad. 

Last year our fatal flaw was that we traded our first game (a loss to the eventual runners up) for the learning experience of how to adapt our game to the pond.  That single loss kept us from playing in the games that matter.  This year we had an incredibly tough draw in having two of the top five teams in our bracket of four (including last year’s champs).  I’ll save you the gory details but we came out of the other side of our group play with a 2-1 record (our only loss being by a single goal to the aforementioned 2012 champs on a rink in such poor condition that it was shutdown for the remainder of the tournament after our game) and a +28 goal differential.  One would think that to be a pretty impressive mark, however in the ever competitive world of the US Pond Hockey Championships it turns out we earned the 8th and final seed to advance by a total of six goals

While the first round was under way, our collective band of misfits had been earning recognition of a different kind throughout the rest of the community.  Let me start by saying that the concept of associating a mascot with your team is a stroke of brilliance.  Having two really takes things to a whole new level.  Heaven help the team that ever attempts to tackle the only-discussed-in-whispers three mascot format as I fear it would cause everyone associated to have their heads explode like in the movie Scanners.  Having drunken young men in insulated animal costumes supporting your squad brings with it certain perks.  Your games will draw more attendance that the average outing by default as random passersby are drawn to drunkards in costume like middle aged white people to CBS programming. 

Believe it or not, the Rat was in the hospital four hours after this picture was taken

As testament to their powers, late Friday afternoon one of our veiled fanatics was struck by a particularly strong tug of gravity resulting in a visit to the local emergency room in order to close a window his top teeth opened through his tongue in their rush to realign with their bottom counterparts.  An unfortunate – yet not unforeseen – casualty no doubt, but hardly the only of its kind at such a gathering.  Within the next twenty-four hours however no less than six complete strangers approached me to inquire as to the well-being of our Rat.  By Friday evening (at which time our fallen comrade had made a triumphant return to the local establishments straight from the hospital) our legacy in the community was secured. For the low cost of a hand-stitched Peruvian varmint (plus shipping and handling), B-List celebrity status was achieved.

Saturday afternoon brought with it a familiar cloud over our tournament fate.  As the 8th seed we met the class of our bracket (and for the record the eventual champs) and came out on the losing end of an 8-6 score.  For the duration of the tournament we lost to last year’s champions by a single goal and this year’s champs by two, leaving us a healthy +26 goal differential overall yet with no invitation to participate in the semi-finals or championship on Sunday morning. 

After a long evening Saturday that crept near to daylight, a collection of us reconvened for a delightful brunch at our lodgings.  While attempting to prop our eyes open from the glare of the sterno torches beneath the warming trays, a matronly woman enjoying the same spread approached us asking if we had heard whether a certain team had emerged victorious from their morning affair.  Our having no concept to whom she was referring, let alone struggling to decipher whether she was speaking English to begin with, we said “yes” with the intonation that no further questions would be tolerated. 

She went on to explain that this team in question had self-implemented a curfew the evening before so that they would be in top form for their semi-final appearance.  As odd as it may sound, this concept had never even been considered amongst our contingent. 

During the six hour drive back to the flatlands of Illinois, and the week in time since, I have been wrestling with this conundrum.  Perhaps some aspect of our exit from the tournament these past two years can be traced to a lack of a commitment to the stated goal of hoisting hardware when the final game has been played.  To a man on Thursday night we spoke with passion and determination of our shared vision of success.  With that said however one may question our motives of draining the town of Eagle River of its entire supply of Fireball just one evening later.  In order to reach the highest high does the required sacrifice involve falling to the lowest rungs of the social ladder?

Be honest, would you say "no" if this man offered you a drink?

My fear is that the answer to that question lies in the affirmative.

If that is in fact the case, meaning that the missing ingredient in our quest is that of rest, then I must say, and I believe I speak for my teammates in this as well, I choose to take the more difficult path from this day forward, and it is a conscious decision to do so. 

By no means do I wish for my message to be misconstrued, I make the drive north each winter with the intent to win, no questions asked.  I am not ashamed to admit that I literally have dreamt about hoisting the Mullet Cup above my head in celebration on Dollar Lake.  I will do everything in my power to see that dream become a reality… well, almost anything. 

When it comes down to it, a large part of the whole experience that is the US Pond Hockey Championships boils down to the camaraderie one finds not only with ones teammates but also the community at large.  For one weekend a year, literally thousands of like-minded individuals who share a unique love of the smell of vulcanized rubber as well as the taste of Labatt’s Blue converge on a small town in northern Wisconsin to celebrate the game we love and perhaps life as a whole.  Perhaps nowhere else on Earth could you find a collection of individuals who, when asked to describe heaven, would incorporate the words ice, shinny, & as far as the eye can see.  Meeting and being around these people and this environment is as rewarding as any goal you can bury during regulation time.  Some part of me is warmed during the longest days and darkest nights in between by the ticking clock in my head marking time until Eagle River commences once more.  There is value in the experience and the experience is defined by daylight and evening hours; hospitals and fish fries; and competitions held both on the ice and on the rocks.

Our team was thrown together in perhaps the most round about way one could imagine.  The seventy-two hours we spend together up north are often the only ones of their kind each year where more than three of us are ever in the same area code simultaneously.  I would go to war with these men.  It sounds cliché I admit but one must remember that “going to war” involves the good times as well, meaning those that can be found in the barracks, in the mess hall, and on weekend leave.  I consume my hockey tournaments much as I live my life, there is a purpose and there is a goal, and I will put my best against yours any day of the week.  But along the way I am going to enjoy the ride as well as the process.  I am going to throw down the gauntlet now in saying that I look forward to the opportunity to sending home the kids who go to bed early in 2014, so that they can question exactly what it is they’re doing in the middle of the pine trees of Vilas County Wisconsin in the dead of winter.  I am confident my victory will be all the sweeter and I anticipate being able to tell you all about it in this space as early as next year.

Next year we're going to earn the Mullet Cup instead of just taking it from the dumbfounded master of ceremonies