It sounds fancy and exclusive, like you’d have to meet some kind of qualifying standard, but the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships are quite the opposite.
Fresh off its 13th year on Lake Nokomis, the ever-expanding event in Minneapolis is about as populist as you can get. There is a Thursday night youth tournament. Then, on a Friday through Sunday, there are spots for 300 teams in six divisions: Open (the most-skilled), Cedar, Rinkrat, 40+, Women’s, and Sled. If you can lace up skates and totter onto the ice, you can participate. If you have a team, that is.
Minnesota may be the ancestral home of pond hockey, but memories of sweaty-headed, passionately played, proudly DIY neighborhood free-for-alls draws players from every province of Canada, 48 states, and, last year, one die-hard from London.
Putting on the tournament is a year-round business: Registration for teams opens in mid-July. “The 88 Rink Rat spots sell out in 20 minutes,” said spokesman Jim Dahline.
But a lot can happen between July and January. Jobs, hamstrings, children, the flu. Thus, there is the “Free Agent Board.” The tournament website hosts a want-ad page for teams looking to fill holes on their eight-person rosters, and free agents looking for a team. Of course, advertising oneself attractively, but without deception, is an art.
Most go with a sort of lost-dog appeal: “Would like to join a 40+ or Rink Rat Division. If anyone has open slots on their team. I just wanna experience this at least once :-)”
One poster offered street as well as ice cred: “hailing from the mean streets of brooklyn, new york. plenty of ice hockey experience in my 36 years of life. looking to play in the cedar or rink rat division. i can play upfront or on the back end.”
Here, honesty was tempered by qualifying remarks: “I play every week in a Hockey Finder 2-3 level league. I’m 54 going on 45.”
“Played last year in the cedar division it was a blast! I would rather play in the open division since I would like more competition. Coming up from Florida so if anyone needs a forward for either division let me know.” A Rink Rat team from Atlanta answered Dean Wolfe’s ad, saying they could use a good skater. Further motivated by the fact that both he and his dad, Todd, who’s in his 50s, could find a place on the team, Wolfe accepted their offer.
Wolfe spent his formative years playing hockey in Florida. “I was lucky my parents were willing to drive me an hour or two to an indoor rink,” he said. The idea probably came from his dad, who grew up in Minnesota playing pond hockey. Wolfe spent some time in the juniors, including a stint in Minnesota where he first saw the pond hockey championships on television.
What was the draw? “The opportunity to play outside,” he said, “and meeting people from all over. You skate up to the faceoff and they ask where you’re from. They’re like, ‘What do you mean, you’re from Florida?’ ” Wolfe had trouble raising a team in the Sunshine State, so he turned to the free agent board.
As it turned out, a Wolfe pack came up for the event Jan. 26-28 — mom, dad, grandpa, a friend from Florida who scored a spot on a different team at the last minute. Dean and his dad met their Atlanta OTP-ITP teammates minutes before their first game, yet passes were made, shots were taken, and some hit home. Some of the team had an official white and blue Atlanta jersey; others just stuck with the color scheme. Legwear was varied, by no means regulation hockeywear, usually duct taped to keep it from flapping. As the team cleared out to make way for the next game, someone asked about the score, but that detail went unanswered in the reliving of the game highlights.
Brad Wilczynski sandbagged a bit in his ad: “Moved up from Tennessee, looking to join a team, played D1 roller hockey in college, thx title 9 hah ... and getting back to ice ... I’m 31 and looking for a good group of guys to hang with and have a good time on the ice.”
What he didn’t mention in his free agent post was that he grew up in Connecticut with a pond in his backyard, attended college at Syracuse, and has been living in Minnesota for three years. He’s no rookie on the ice.
Wilczynski thought his post-collegiate move to Memphis would be the end of his hockey playing days but was surprised to find both ice and roller hockey leagues there.
“You meet hockey fans all over,” he said. “Someone who loves hockey, you just connect with them in some strange way.”
Two teams contacted Wilczynski. He aligned with a Rink Rat group from North Carolina called the Chesapeake Blue Crabs. They called him when they got in town, and met at a bar to “strategize,” he said.
As they waited outside rink No. 25 on Jan. 27 for the previous contenders to clear off, the Blue Crabs, who’d opted for plain white jerseys, were stoked to be outside in the bright sun, on natural ice (read: not perfect), getting ready to throw down some shock and awe. Or whatever. This outdoor hockey, complete with sky and trees and houses across the lake, was a novel experience for several of the rink-bred Crabs, and they were sold on the whole scene. Spirits high, Wilczynski scored early on, glove-bumped, and gave another eager Blue Crab his chance on the ice.
One heck of a player
Women can play in any division, though Dahline, the spokesman, said teams outside the women’s division tend to be all male.
“Women’s style of play — strategic, lot of passing, a finesse game — is an advantage,” Dahline said, “because checking is not allowed in pond hockey and the rinks are too small to get up much speed.”
Free agents are not required to advertise their gender, but most do: “Played D1 in college (women’s). Looking for a Cedar team that needs an extra or a women’s team. Currently play AHA B1.”
There are clues in that post that Kobi Trevis is one heck of a player. If anything, she understated her experience. She cut her teeth in Vancouver playing with boys’ teams, and as a teen made the Canadian junior national team. From there, she earned a scholarship to play at Div. I St. Cloud State. Now 37, with a job and a family, she plays twice a week on a men’s B1 team (A1 is the highest skill).
The summertime registration window for tournament slipped by, so she posted as a free agent. A women’s division team contacted her, as did a Cedar level team (all guys, from Michigan) called Tendy Problems Hockey Apparel.
“I miss the camaraderie of playing with women, but I’m super-competitive and men’s teams have always been really welcoming,” she said. “Even so, I wanted to make sure they knew I was a woman because we had only texted. The captain texted back and said, ‘No biggy.’ ”
Within the first minute of play in its third game, it was obvious Tendy Problems had its work cut out for itself. Equally obvious was that Trevis was in her element. She took an elbow to the chin while scrapping for the puck (the refs shouted a warning), but came back and scored her team’s first goal.
But goals were just a momentary breather. Playing hockey was the priority. Players quickly set up for the faceoff, eager to get in as much hockey in 28 minutes as possible.
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.