Playing for the Tijan’s Twelve Pines team from Eagle River, Bruce Richter tried to deke an opponent.
Playing for the Tijan’s Twelve Pines team from Eagle River, Bruce Richter tried to deke an opponent.
The Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships returned to Dollar Lake, attracting about 290 teams competing for national champion bragging rights in 19 divisions.

The 12th annual tournament brought in more than 2,000 hockey players from 23 states to Eagle River last Friday through Sunday. 

During the three-day week­end, teams with players ranging from age 21 to more than 70 years of age played more than 500 games, according to Katie Holmgren, tournament manager for USA Hockey.

“It’s a ton of work, but when you get to the event, you see all the peoples’ faces and all the players playing on the lake, it makes it so worth it,” said Holmgren. “We recognize how important this event is to not just USA Hockey, but Eagle River and so many other people around the area. People keep coming back I think because they know it’s run well and it’s a true hockey experience.”

While it was a mild winter leading up to the tournament, there was enough ice to hold the event on Dollar Lake. But because there were just 14 inches of ice, the 26-rink layout had to be adjusted and vehicles were not allowed on the lake.

The tournament got under way Friday with cool, windy conditions, but by Saturday the winds calmed and the temperature was in the 30s. Championship Sunday featured strong winds, but the temperatures hovered in the high 20s.

Pat Weber of the Eagle River Area Fire Department and liaison to USA Hockey for the tourney, said the event went well considering the last-minute adjustments.

“We prepare 26 rinks  and 24 were used throughout the weekend,” said Weber. The rinks overall held up pretty good. There weren’t any real major cracks in the ice because we didn’t have the cold weather.”

Hundreds of volunteers were needed throughout the weekend to referee games, keep score, park cars, cook food and shuttle players from Dollar Lake Road.

“The volunteers seemed to be pretty good all weekend. We were really never short on people. It seemed to work out really pretty good,” said Weber.

Weber said the wind on Friday and Sunday didn’t hamper play or the grounds, though one group of players had several small tents damaged due to the gusty winds on the south end of the rinks Sunday morning. 

 “Friday we had pretty good wind and Sunday we had good wind out there,” said Weber, “but thank goodness the temperature was up so there wasn’t a brutal windchill.”

Weber said the firefighters plowed the lake several weeks ago to help the ice thicken and then built the  60- by 135-foot rinks last week.

“Last year we had problems when we had flooding on the rinks and we had to create some additional new ones down on the south end,” said Weber. “We had to downsize those because of the area we had to work with. The players liked the larger rinks this year because it gives them a little more room to play.” 

Weber said that overall, this year’s tournament was a good one.

“I would say it was one of the better ones here. The new beer garden in the center, Labatt’s Blue Zone, really kept people here all day long, both on Friday and Saturday,” said Weber. “We were going to run it on Sunday, but with the wind conditions, we decided not to. Plus, most of the teams, when they lose on Sunday, they are ready to leave town. They have some pretty long drives.”

With teams coming from all over the country, Weber said the event is good for the local economy.

“I believe there were more than 20 states represented here. And our referees came from all over too. We got a couple from Alaska. One even from Eagle River, Alaska. They have a network of officials who don’t skate a lot any more, but like to come to these events,” said Weber.

Holmgren reiterated that USA Hockey officials are happy with their decision to bring the national pond hockey tournament to Eagle River. She said the late Don Kohlman, who worked for USA Hockey and retired to Eagle River, was instrumental in bringing the event to Dollar Lake.

“I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet Don, but this was his baby and we are very blessed to carry on the tradition for him,” said Holmgren.

Ready to return

This year’s opening round of games started at 7:45 a.m. Friday, and Sunday’s championship games were done by 1:30 p.m., giving players and fans an early start for their journey home. The games feature four-on-four hockey and smaller goals.

The winner in the bronze 21-plus division was the Teabags from Detroit. Player Jeff Kosinski held the trophy above his head and skated around the rink Sunday afternoon.

“We went to double overtime a couple years in a row and just fell short every year. One year we went 3-0  and didn’t make the playoffs,” said Kosinski. “Finally, finally, we got in the finals again and finally took it home, which is nice.”

Kosinski said he enjoys making the trip to Eagle River for the tournament.

“The tournament is great. The city puts a great effort into it. The firefighters and volunteers are awesome. Without them we couldn’t do any of this,” he said. “It’s nice to play on the pond and drink some beers with the boys. We’ve been together since ’01 and we plan on coming back next year. Now we have a championship to defend.” 

In addition to 14 men’s divisions, championship cups also were presented in five women’s divisions.

Camy Gould of  Chicago said she comes with a big group of players.

“We came up with three teams from the Chicago area this year and had two teams in the running for a championship this year,” said Gould. “We love Eagle River, love the people and love this event. The people who organize this thing really do it right and that's why we keep coming back. This year we came up a day early and enjoyed a day of snowmobiling, hit up the Falcons games both Friday and Saturday nights and just really enjoyed our time up here again. We’ve been coming for eight straight years now and we’ll be back every year.”

Dallas Meonga played for a team from the Twin Cities in Minnesota and praised the organization of the tournament.

“We can’t believe how well this event runs. I can only imagine having to keep track of not just the teams, but the people in general. And look, everyone is having a good time, drinking a few Labatts and just really enjoying the game of hockey. And that’s what it is about. It’s about the hockey,” said Meonga.

Meonga said there’s more to the weekend then winning a game or two or event trophy.

“You know, we used to come here to try and win it. That took some of the fun out of the weekend for us because some guys wanted to relax and have a good time,” said Meonga. “Don’t get me wrong. I want to win, but it’s not the entire focus when you come to Eagle River. We want to come for a weekend, not get hurt and go home wanting to come back again next year.”