The 14th annual Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships will take place this Friday through Sunday, Feb. 8-10, and will once again be held on Dollar Lake in Eagle River.

Organizers of the annual event are well into their preparations for the nearly 300 teams from around the country who’ll make their home in the North Woods this coming weekend.

“The annual pond hockey national championships have become a tradition for USA Hockey, and we’re looking forward to yet another weekend of fierce but friendly competition among some great hockey teams on Dollar Lake,” said Katie Holmgren, USA Hockey director of program services and tournament director. “We’d like to thank our local volunteer base in Eagle River for helping to make this such an incredible event each year, and we wish all the participating teams the best of luck next week.”

Holmgren said area hotels and lodging venues will see teams arriving as early as Wednesday with festivities beginning Thursday evening at the World Championship Derby Complex Expo Hall with registration and team check-in from 4 to 10 p.m.

USA Hockey merchandise will be available for purchase starting Thursday and throughout the weekend, and a limited number of event participants and guests will have the opportunity to take home exclusive USA Hockey giveaways at the Eagle River Falcons game Saturday night.

Holmgren said they expect around 2,000 hockey players to compete across 20 divisions over the course of the three-day tourney.

Hockey action on Dollar Lake east of Eagle River begins Friday morning with games getting underway at 8 a.m.

Pat Weber of the Eagle River Fire Department has been at the head of the event locally for the past 14 years.

He, and over 35 members of the department, along with their friends and area businesses, act as the ground troops in Eagle River, helping by volunteering their time to prepare the site needed to host over 2,000 hockey players.

“Tent crews are here and gone, so this week we’ll be hooking up electricity, getting all the propane run to all the tents for heaters and then spend the rest of the week forming the rinks,” Weber said. “It will make the week go pretty fast, that’s for sure.”

The event’s popularity has grown immensely, according to Holmgren.

She said in the minutes leading up to registration hundreds of individuals were parked on the USA Hockey Adult Hockey website trying to land a spot at the hugely popular outdoor tournament.

“We’ve got just under 300 teams again this year, which is sort of our magic number,” Holmgren said. “The registration hasn’t slowed down a bit. It sold out in about 10 minutes this year. It seems what we would call maybe the ‘less popular’ divisions are becoming more popular.”

The Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships began in 2006 with just 40 teams, who at that point skated on just six rinks. It has evolved through the years, and now consistently draws up to 300 teams consisting of more than 2,300 players across 19 divisions.

Holmgren, who makes her home in Colorado Springs, Colo., admits that while the event takes much coordination and volunteer help, it is one that she looks forward to each year.

“The event wouldn’t be possible or as popular without our loyal participants and all the work from the community and volunteers in Eagle River,” Holmgren said. “We’re looking forward to being back on Dollar Lake this week. We love seeing our friends from across the country. It’s an annual event so of course there are people you only get to see once a year. It’s fun catching up, working hard and putting on a great event for Eagle River.”

Event specifics

With over 2,000 players and thousands more spectators expected, moving people and players onto and off of Dollar Lake is always a focus.

A large majority of the players, workers and spectators will arrive by shuttle, coordinated with the host site, Chanticleer Inn.

Players and spectators should note that East Dollar Lake Road will be one-way heading north until it meets with Eagle Lake Road. West Dollar Lake Road will have two-way traffic up until it meets Eagle Lake Road.

“There will be an area for player drop-offs and parking at Chanticleer as well as shuttles running on roads around the lake,” she said. “We ask that people please plan enough time to arrive to drop off players and get to your games on time.”

Team check-in will be held at the Derby Complex Expo Hall beginning Thursday, Feb. 7, from 4 to 10 p.m., along with check-in Friday morning from 7 to 11 a.m. at Chanticleer Inn.

Another popular event comes with the Pond Hockey Championships this year and will take place at the Expo Hall Thursday night.

“We are again hosting the USA Hockey Foundation Cornhole Tournament on Thursday night during check-in,” Holmgren said.

The third annual Cornhole tourney will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Cost per team is a $10 donation to the USA Hockey Foundation.

Also back again this year on the ice will be the Labatt’s Blue Zone.

“Again it will offer more of a ‘beer garden’ type feel off of the main concession and beer tent,” Holmgren said. “We’ll be having games, beer, food and live music.”

The fan zone will offer up beer games and a disc jockey, with space heaters and seating for players or spectators.

Saturday evening will be a players reception at the Derby Complex Expo Hall from 6 to 8 p.m.

“It’s a time to raise a toast to those who help us,” Holmgren said. “We do some fundraising for the USA Hockey Foundation and do a number of giveaways.”

Sunday’s schedule will start at 9 a.m. and will include semifinal and final games in the 19 divisions.

Holmgren said for the latest updates and schedule fans should download the USA Adult Pond Hockey app on their smartphones.

Local impact

According to Kim Emerson, director of the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce, the annual Pond Hockey event showcases the North Woods, and especially Eagle River.

“Pond hockey weekend is a very big weekend and a great winter event that cannot be compared to other events throughout the year,” said Emerson, “When you think hockey, you think Eagle River. The city and area is known for its hockey, and you can’t think of a better place to bring a tournament like this to.”

The working relationship between volunteers, the city of Eagle River and USA Hockey runs deep according to Holmgren, who said what makes the annual large-scale event so popular is the way people in small communities like Eagle River buy in to what USA Hockey is.

“As a national governing body, many are familiar with USA Hockey as a youth sanctioning body, but as adults we host a ton of programs,” she said. “Whether it’s educational programs, mentoring opportunities or just getting more people involved in the sport, it’s events like Pond Hockey in Eagle River which give us a national stage to say ‘Hey, look at us.’ We’re grassroots hockey, working with a local community.”

When thousands of players along with their friends and families arrive in Eagle River, they’ll bring with them a desire to enjoy as much as possible of what the area has to offer.

“It is an event that drives visitors to our community for another reason during the winter season,” said Emerson.

While out around the community, Emerson said the influx financially is noticed by many area businesses over the course of the weekend.

“The players go out into our community and are eating and drinking in our many dining establishments, they are buying gas and groceries and are shopping in our stores downtown, plus they are visiting many other businesses as well,” said Emerson. “This event, for the short time it is here, provides a great economic boost to our economy during our winter months. We are all very thank­ful and appreciative to each and every one of our visitors. We can’t thank them enough for coming to Eagle River.”

Emerson said one of her most favorite aspects of the tourney is how it showcases the strong volunteer base.

“Many in our community look forward to this event each year, not only because it brings people to our community in winter, but because it brings our community to­gether to support this great event,” she said.