Earlier this month I went to the mountain and saw the holy land.  In the physical world “the mountain” was Eagle River, Wisconsin, and the “holy land” was twenty-four frozen rinks spread across Dollar Lake.  For a hockey fan and sports purist it truly was one of the greatest scenes to unfold before these eyes.  This was two and three generations coming together to play the sport they love for all of the right reasons that have nothing to do with fame or money or greed.  It was simply sport at its truest core and somehow I was able to go along for the ride.    

With that build up in place, my plan is to make several posts this week on the various aspects of the event, and no summary of Eagle River can begin without properly explaining exactly what Eagle River is.  When you think of life in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, Eagle River is probably the place that comes to mind whether you’re conscious of it or not.  It’s a quaint little downtown with a handful of stop lights that sustains itself off of hunters and snow mobilers to keep their bars full.  Every restaurant has a signature fish fry on Friday nights and gives you a funny look if you order anything other than beer to drink. 

One weekend a year however this town of less than fifteen hundred people gets flooded by two thousand puckheads that want every hour to be happy.  Fine dining takes a back seat to deep fryers as I cannot recollect consuming a single vegetable during my stay.  The golden brown hue of mozzarella sticks and chicken tenders served as the color of sustenance for a full 72 hours. 

My teammates and I wasted no time in achieving first name status with Molly and Bunny who run The Penalty Box Pub & Grill.  How could you not like a place where a complete sweetheart of a woman named Bunny brings you rounds of ten pints of Penalty Box Punch? 

I don’t mean to make this sound like we spent the entire weekend within the local establishments.  It wasn’t the entire time I swear.  When not imbibing on spirits we spent a good chunk of time hanging out on a frozen sheet of ice in sub twenty degree weather outdoors.

The setup of the tournament was everything I could have every imagined.  Everything was on the ice allowing for you to get around to all twenty-four rinks, three dressing room tents, a food pavilion, and the official USA hockey tent without ever having to remove your skates.  If you weren’t one of the early arrivers each morning that got to park on the ice, then you parked along the road to the lodge and hopped in people’s trucks to take you down to the festivities.  For being an event built entirely around competition, there could not have been a bigger sense of community and camaraderie amongst the contestants. 

I know that this is coming from about as completely bias a source as possible but there is just something about the people that are drawn to the sport of hockey that make them my favorite in the sporting world.  It’s a class of people unto themselves that stay out to close the bars at 4am and get up to make their 6am ice times.  Our first round of games each day started no later than 8:30am where the sky was still gray, the wind was howling, and grown men were getting icicles in their beards when sitting on the bench.  All the while everyone in attendance had a smile on their face from ear to ear. 

The teams consisted of witty names and clever jerseys.  Men wore hockey socks that look like fishnet stockings and women named their teams “The Multiple Scoregasms.”  Whether your game ended in a tightly fought 5-4 gritty mess or a 20-4 blowout, when the final whistle sounded everyone was back on the same team of being pure and simple fans of the game where you enjoyed your tournament provide Labatt’s Blue twelve pack and reminisced about the game that was.

In regards to the atmosphere, the weekend culminated in a game by the local Eagle River Falcons, essentially a glorified men’s league team that travels, hosting one of the other local town’s best at the big rink in town named the Igloo.  What seemed like everyone in town – locals and tourists alike – poured into the stands and rocked this all wooden dome for three periods like the best the United Center could ever offer.  The players had no names on the back of their jerseys which was fitting as their names were not important.  Hockey is a game of team, and everyone in this tiny little burg, tucked between a handful of lakes in northern Wisconsin, was all on the same team for a seventy two hour period that I’ll never forget in my life.  Folks who have carried bags full of gear into refrigerated builds for their entire lives dragged those same bags to Eagle River to celebrate the game, the lifestyle, and the religion that they have grown to embrace.  For those seventy-two hours everything was right with the world… as long as you don’t mind a few icicles hanging from your chin.