In Part Two of what I’ve quickly discovered is going to only be a two part series, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about the hockey experience that is the USA Pond Hockey Championships in Eagle River, WI.

My team was a mash up from the beginning.  I had received a call from my former college roommate who doubles as one of my best friends from my Madison days and also the man who made this here site possible.  He and his buddies who live in Los Angeles had decided to form a team for this tournament to honor one of their fathers who had recently been diagnosed with cancer.  They only had one spot remaining on the roster and my buddy was kind enough to think of me as a somewhat local boy (I at least live within the same time zone as the tournament) that could hold his own on the ice.  I happily accepted the invite all the way back in August and had been waiting for the weekend to arrive ever since. 

As the tournament date drew closer, guys from LA started to resemble snowflakes; for a variety of reasons they began to opt to not land in Chicago this winter.  Soon enough we were looking to fill two more roster spots and I was called upon to hand pick two more players from the local talent pool.  The criteria was rather intense; they must both be able to keep up at what was being described as an increasingly high level of hockey, while simultaneously being awesome guys to party with.  My reputation was now on the line based on the physical and social capabilities of these added-on-the-fly teammates.  The pressure was on.  Needless to say we ended up taking on one of my local teammates and friends whom I’ve shared a carpool with twice, plus his buddy from Portland, Oregon.  To get into all of the details of how this came to pass would only result in unnecessary wear and tear on my keyboard so you’ll just have to take my word that this all made logical sense sometime back in January.

To make a long story short, we ended up a ragtag collection of eight young men, coming from three different states, none of whom knew more than five of the other fellas as of the morning of our drive up to Eagle River.  For the record, teams in the tournament can only carry seven skaters but we brought an eighth guy who flew all the way in from Los Angeles to dress as a polar bear for potentially six thirty-minute hockey games over the course of three days.  Again, this made quite a bit of sense at one point in time.

I write all of this to convey that despite my focus on the value of the “team” concept in the game of hockey in my post yesterday, our team had no synergy what-so-ever coming into the competition.  The first time the seven of us ever skated within two thousand miles of each other was in the fifteen minute warm-up period before our first game.  Amazingly this little fact came back to haunt us over the next two fifteen-minute running-time halves. 

Despite developing incredible chemistry at our initial team lunch on Thursday afternoon before departing for Eagle River, and Thursday night while making introductions to Bunny & Co. at The Penalty Box Pub & Grill, learning the rhythm and flow of playing hockey together proved to be challenging.  First and foremost, pond hockey is a significantly different game than the hockey you watch on TV or that anyone of us knew from playing indoors.  Pond hockey is defined by the small mounds of snow that circle the rink as opposed to hard boards that allow for bank passes and clearing shots that are quite popular in the indoor game.  Within the first half of our first game all seven of us at one point or another shot a puck into the snow bank only to be surprised that it didn’t bounce back. 

Another nuance to pond hockey is that it’s a four-on-four game where no goalies are employed.  To accommodate this, the goals are all of three feet wide and four inches off the ice so that all goals essentially mush slide into the net (no lifting the puck and going top shelf).  There are rules in the tournament book about keeping a player back in the goal and how it’s illegal to make a “goalie-like action” to stop a shot from going in.  We interpreted this to mean that this made the game a wide open high scoring affair.  We quickly learned that this is not in fact the case, as apparently the only play that can be interpreted as a “goalie-like action” involves dropping to one’s knees to make a save.  Pretty much everything else is fair game.  At the end of the first contest we found ourselves on the losing end of a 14-10 score and had given up at least six or seven goals from beyond center ice – a direct result of our not having a “goalie” back to stop those shots.  No gentlemen’s code about shooting the length of the ice was employed as we had foolishly presumed. 

While a devastating blow to our collective egos, the learning opportunity proved to be invaluable.  In hindsight, perhaps our biggest curse was that we played one of the first game of the entire tournament and did not have an opportunity to learn how other teams play the game up here in the Northwoods.  It was clear that we had the talent amongst us, but some egos were going to have to be set aside and we’d all have to make sacrifices on the stat sheets by turning our focus to defense.  By adapting our game from that of skill and speed (which simply does not translate onto the bumpy and cracked ice of the open lake), to one of capitalizing on the mistakes of our competition and keeping the puck out of our own net, a new focus emerged.  At least the tournament-supplied twelver of Labatt’s Blue made the loss a little more tolerable. 

Three hours of commiseration and education later, our band of merry men took the ice for our second tilt.  We had actually hung out with our second opponents in the lodge bar the hour before our game began, and while they were nice fellows also from Chicago - who’s piano playing skills dwarfed our own - on the ice rink they could not hold a candle to us.  We were simply the better and more talented team.  The key to our convincing 9-4 victory however, (I swear the official missed at least three additional goals for our side) was our new found use of a defensive based system.  To say we played perfect would be inaccurate as on a number of occasions our designated defensive player in charge of protecting the net was found getting sucked into the offensive zone action, however I mark this game as the moment we learned how to play pond hockey.  We made short quick passes and waited for the puck to hit a rut when our opponents tried to carry it, and then pounced upon their misfortune.  The number of goals from more than twenty feet away were cut to zero as keeping a designated “goalie” back kept the opponents from even attempting those shots.  The whole thing was like night and day.  Our first game was at 8am where it was grey, windy, and 6 degrees Fahrenheit out; and our second was at 12:30p where the sun was shining, the temperature had crawled comfortably into the twenties, and all was well with the world. 

Due to our foible in the morning however we had a difficult task going into our third and final game scheduled to begin first thing Saturday.  We had a goal differential of only +1 and had a loss to a team that we assumed was not particularly good who could potentially finish with the same record of 2-1 that we were striving for.  Head to head matchups matter in that if we both finished 2-1 then they would have gotten the tie breaker (for the record the team we lost to did end up taking 2nd in the whole tournament).  We came into Saturday morning significantly hungover and fervently determined to make a statement in our third and potentially final game. 

Not to go all Braveheart on you here, but that morning, on that frozen lake, we played like warrior poets.  I don’t even remember the name of the team we played but it really didn’t matter.  It could have been anyone that lined up across from us and the same fate would have been delivered.  We played the game the way it was meant to be played from the opening puck drop.  Well not the opening puck drop technically as the opponent actually jumped out to a 2-0 lead right out of the gate.  That did not last long however.  Over the next 26 minutes we outpaced them to the tune of 19-2 and their two goals came from a penalty we took (in pond hockey if you commit a penalty the other team is awarded a goal and gets to start with the puck in their end) and our “goalie” being distracted while talking to the scorekeeper for some reason about the game we lost the day before.  The rest of the game was pure magic from a player’s stand point.  Our passes went tape to tape for the duration of the game.  We scored pretty goals and hustle goals.  Our defense would have been described as “lock down.”  We played with flow and chemistry that teams I’ve played on for a number of seasons in a row never developed.  If the defensive player rushed forward then an offensive player dropped back and covered for him.  Drop passes were perfectly timed and outlet passes resembled games of tick-tack-toe.  It was a thing of beauty. 

When it was all said and done we had won our final game 19-4 and received the ultimate compliment from our competition who told us that we were the best team they had seen play at the tournament by far.  Unfortunately our aggregate 2-1 record and +16 goals for was good but not great.  The last game that would affect our moving on to the second round of the tournament was not scheduled to begin until 12:30p.  Our fate was in the hands of the hockey gods, and the gods were not in our favor.  I blame my lack of attendance in church.  Due to a handful of circumstances involving a game where two 2-0 teams went to overtime thus each received a point in the standings, and another where a team we needed to win got in a verbal altercation with the ref and was administered a 10 goal penalty resulting in their losing their game by 3, our tournament was over in the minimum number of games.  We ended up coming in 9th out of 26 teams in our division. 

While depressing to get ousted, wrapping up the tournament on the heels of the 19-4 game left all of us wanting more.  If we could have paid our registration fees for next year at that moment we would have done so without hesitation.  While sitting around the Penalty Box wondering how we can appeal that 10 goal penalty in the other game, the idea struck me that with the majority of teams having been eliminated by 1pm, there were bound to be open rinks down at the lake.  So we collected our things, closed out our tabs, and returned to the ice one last time. 

The afternoon games on Saturday, and I’m sure the championship rounds on Sunday morning, are where the real tournament begins.  There are fans circling each rink and the intensity of the games was significantly different that the first round games we played.  We watched from afar while we put our gear back on, and while no words were spoken it was understood by all of us that we would be still playing at this time next year.  The eight of us (with the polar bear suit left in the car) took over one of the back rinks and began playing four on four with no subs just like we did growing up on the ponds and frozen parking lots of our youth.  The game was fast and high intensity despite being played among what had now become lifelong friends.  You had to play hard because you couldn’t let your teammates down or allow a friend on the other team to make you look foolish.  It was a blend of skill and chemistry that I can honestly say I have never equaled in my 23+ years of playing the sport.  We raced up and down the ice never allowing ourselves to get tired because no one wanted to be the reason the game came to an end.  We played through all of the other games coming to conclusion and all of the other fans having gone home.  We played as the sun set across Dollar Lake and the Eagle River Fire Department brushed off and sprayed down the remaining 23 rinks.  Finally the darkness was unavoidable and we began losing pucks that disappeared into the snow.  The firemen were polite and even watched the last fifteen minutes or so of our game before even they heard the siren song of the party commencing in town that they wished to join as soon as the last rink was cleaned for the morning matches. We were ushered away and went back to the dressing rooms without much being said between us. 

It was a consensus that this was the best hockey experience any of us had ever enjoyed.  Something happened out there on that ice that can’t be bought or manufactured.  It was something pure and true, the essence of what teamwork and friendship and a sport built on those two pillars can be when you mix the ingredients just right.  We did not win a trophy or return home with any hardware this year, but that’s ok.  The prize I received goes beyond any titles or awards.  For myself personally, and I believe I speak for my seven other teammates, a new bar has been set for everything that hockey can become. Our challenge is not only to advance further in the tournament next year, but more importantly to try and re-capture that sensation of frozen perfection that we found tucked away on a little lake in Eagle River during the winter of 2012.