U.S. Pond Hockey Championships
Avid sports fans often lament the ruination of their favorite pastimes by the twin evils of professionalism and money. Free agency and contract lawyers have all but destroyed the concept of a real “team” in professional sports. College sports have become little more than professional sports with younger cheerleaders. The Olympics aren’t just for amateurs anymore. And almost every other activity one can think of—golf, tennis, snowboarding, running, swimming, cycling, fishing, poker, billiards, Ping-Pong, roller-skating, hot-dog eating—has been tainted by our cultural compulsion to brand, sponsor, and profit from everything people used to do for fun.
Luckily, there is still one true sport left in this land, and Minnesota is its birthplace and epicenter. And that sport is: pond hockey.
In its purest form, pond hockey involves a group of friends who spend about an hour clearing a patch of ice on a local lake or pond, then pile up two mounds of snow six feet apart to mark the goal, and spend the rest of the afternoon skating and slapping a puck around. Ideally, the game is played in sub-zero wind chills and the ice is a treacherous minefield of bubbles and cracks that can, at any time, catch the edge of someone’s skate and send them sprawling. The goalie is optional, because standing around in the cold and getting hit time and again by a flying plastic bullet is for suckers. And after the game is over, it takes another hour or so to fully restore the feeling in one’s face and fingers and to check one’s body for fractures and breaks.
True, professional hockey is big business, and scads of hyper-organized youth leagues have conspired to dilute the purity of the game. But this type of hockey has almost no relationship whatsoever with pond hockey. Indoor hockey is for sissies who don’t like the wind, wear pads, and need to have their ice baby smooth and even, so that an unwelcome blemish doesn’t disrupt one of their primly practiced power plays.
By contrast, pond hockey is all about improvisation. A player must factor in nature’s obstacles and elements, and, despite vision blurred by the cold and hot pokers of excruciating pain, find ways to move the puck down the ice and into the goal. There are no fixed plays, and competent passing is rare, so games are often a big, messy free-for-all. Fights are settled by words and fists, not referees. Checking, if it is allowed, is brutal and concussive. Blood inevitably gets spilled, too, and the game ends when one or more of the players is unconscious or in need of an ambulance.
Though the great sport of pond hockey has yet to be poisoned by professionalism, there is, tragically, one local event that threatens to undermine the purity of the sport due to its increasing popularity. The event in question is the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, which will be held January 15 to 18 on Lake Nokomis, in south Minneapolis.
With intentions to draw attention to an under appreciated sport, the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships have, since their inception in 2006, become so popular that more than 250 teams now compete, from more than 47 states and several countries. The national news media now descends on the event regularly, and corporate sponsors—the kiss of death for any true sport—are lining up like schoolchildren. Labatt Blue is this year’s official sponsor, but Target and U.S. Bank can’t be far behind.
Tournament winners still don’t receive any prize money, which is good, because bragging rights are the only award a true sportsman really needs. But I fear that the end is dangerously near for pond hockey. Watch it if you must—but if you really want to appreciate it, call some friends, grab your skates, and go hurt yourself in the name of our last true sport.