The nexus of the universe

Last weekend as the world’s eyes turned to Sochi, a much smaller fraction of the population found their way to the north woods of Wisconsin for a tradition much more frequent and much more personal than any Olympic games.

I’ve written in the past (here and here) about my annual pilgrimage to Eagle River, WI each February to participate in the US Pond Hockey Championships.  It’s easily my favorite weekend of the year.  How can you argue with re-connecting with a group of friends who only get together from our various corners of the country for this single annual smorgasbord of hockey, Labatt’s beer, and laughter?

While packing for the trip on Thursday morning (25 minutes before my ride arrived – another tradition I’ve embraced) I had an unusual internal debate over the value of bringing my watch, as generally speaking it goes everywhere that I do, but I was headed to a place where time has little to no meaning, so what value would it really provide?

In the end I decided to keep my time piece on my wrist but I look back at that moment of contemplation as the tipping point for the weekend that was to come.

I can’t tell if it’s the culture of northern Wisconsin or the general demeanor of the hockey community at large but there’s something in the fresh air between those pines that gives a man strength beyond strength.  The US Pond Hockey Championships is the definition of burning the candle at both ends.  It’s frozen air in your lungs while the sun shines and cold beer in your veins when the moon is on high (or Fireball in our team’s case).

By the time I woke up on Friday morning I rolled over in bed, still fully dressed in my clothes from the night before (and the six hour drive up).  I checked my watch and saw that it was doing that thing where the second hand doesn’t move at all and then jumps ahead five seconds at a time.  The battery was dying.  The message was clear.

Our first day of games found us on the wrong end of the scoreboard as well as the temperature.  It was biting cold, to the extent that when you weren’t playing you had to keep your back to the west as the wind in your face was simply unbearable.  My phone froze to an empty black screen if I didn’t hold it in my bare hand within my pocket for several minutes before requiring its services.  What little heat my body produced was the only thing that kept me connected to the world at large.

As the day wore on the temperature found its way into double digits as did our odometers.  We played on the back rinks of Dollar Lake well after the last tournament game ended.  Our games were timed by the amount of daylight that remained just as it was in the days of our childhood.

In pond hockey it’s all about the ice.  You are in a constant search for the cleanest sheet, the one with the least number of cracks, the least cut up and snowed over, the most wind swept, anything for any edge.  Anything to keep the game going.

Eventually we headed back to our lodgings and the liquid refreshments began anew.  The cycle continues.

By Saturday morning my watch had full on died, I wasn’t even getting my five second rushes of reality any more.

We returned to the ice, as well as our winning ways of years prior, but it was too little too late.  Our tournament was over by 2pm on Saturday and yet in so many ways it was just beginning.  Or perhaps it never ended.

In tonight’s episode of HBO’s True Detective Matthew McConaughey teaches us about the In Brain Theory where essentially life is a continuous loop where once you die the same life starts over anew.  We may make different choices and meet different people but there’s no recollection of the past experiences.  In many ways that’s what our weekend in Eagle River is like each year.  The fish is always fried on Friday night and the local semi-pro team (the Falcons) will play to a raucous crowd on Saturday.  At the tournament teams will have clever names and everyone will be in high spirits no matter the conditions.  The Administration tent will be packed full of scoreboard watchers early Saturday afternoon to see whether their team will live to advance and play another game.

One is forced to either reject this cycle or embrace it.  We’ve embraced it for three straight years now.  The concept of time is completely irrelevant.  Like the Native Americans, during this weekend I can tell you the time of day and even day of the weekend based on what is happening in the environment around me.  No Swiss-made timepiece or digital display is required.

You sleep (kind of), you go to the lake, you skate until the sun goes down, you go home, you shower, you go out until just before the sun comes up, and you start once more.

We did not emerge victorious this year, no hardware was hoisted nor banners raised.  It was disappointing in the moment but the further I am removed from it the more at peace I find myself.  The connections with my friends – my brothers in some respects by now – the hijinks, the memories, are all worth the price of admission unto themselves.  The results are part of that endless loop.  Some years we’ll win, other years we’ll lose.  You emerge victorious from games in which you were outplayed and fall to teams that you out class.  It’s a game of pucks hitting bumps and skates getting caught in cracks.  Sometimes you can pull the puck out of the snow bank cleanly and sometimes you can’t.  There’s no point in fighting it, we’re just all along for the ride.  You might as well enjoy it.

It’s been a week now and I’ve yet to replace the battery in my watch, but I continue to wear it every day because I feel like I should.