A player from Four Loko proudly held a championship keg on Sunday afternoon.
A player from Four Loko proudly held a championship keg on Sunday afternoon.
The Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships were moved to the World Championship Snowmobile Derby Complex in Eagle River last weekend, but that didn’t stop 260 teams from competing for “national champion” bragging rights in 19 divisions.
The 15th anniversary tournament brought in more than 1,800 hockey players ranging from age 21 to over 70, with both men and women competing, according to Ashley Bevan, tournament manager for USA Hockey.
The tournament was moved from Dollar Lake to the Derby Complex due to poor ice conditions on the lake. It’s the second time the tournament was held at the track, with the first time being in 2015.
Despite the move from the natural lake ice to the artificial ice sprayed onto the Derby grounds, the tournament did not disappoint organizers, players or fans.
“It went awesome,” said Bevan Sunday afternoon as he watched the last championship games from the Derby Track bank. “It was a great atmosphere. It again ended up being a great location. It went really, really well.”
USA Hockey announced the change in venue just two weeks prior to the start of the tournament on Friday, noting there was too little ice and too much slush on Dollar Lake.
“Everything got done. The ice crew, the fire department, the Derby Track, everyone came together to pull this off,” said Bevan.
Many players commented that the ice conditions at the Derby Complex were actually better than the lake ice.
“I would agree. The ice is fantastic here. There are no natural lake cracks. So it makes a big difference,” said Bevan.
While it was cold and windy at the start of the tourney Friday morning, the sun came out Saturday to the delight of players and spectators. Light snow moved through the area Sunday morning. Nonetheless, players and spectators had a good time playing and watching hockey on the 20 rinks formed around the Derby Complex grounds, including eight inside the oval, six north of the Expo Hall and six east of the Big Red Barn. A total of 468 games were played in the three days.
“The ice crew did a great job,” said Bevan. “Plus there were plenty of places to warm up, including the giant Expo Hall and the lower level of the Hot Seats which the Derby Complex opened up for spectators.”
As in the past, hundreds of volunteers were vital to the success of the tournament. 
“The volunteers were great. It really takes a community to put this on. The volunteers have been fantastic. We had everyone from scorekeepers to referees to  scoresheet runners,” said Bevan. “It takes a village to put this thing together.”
Bevan said the tournament is special because teams and friends come back year after year to play hockey and reunite. He said 20 states were represented at the 2020 event, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
Bevan said he anticipates the tournament will return to Eagle River next year.
“Absolutely we will be back. We will be back for sure the first weekend in February 2021 and hopefully we will be on the lake,” said Bevan. 

Some champions
This year’s opening round of games started Friday morning and culminated early Sunday afternoon with  championship contests in 19 divisions, giving players and fans an early start for their journey home. The games feature four-on-four hockey on rinks approximately 60 by 135 feet with low-profile goals.
Winners were given championship kegs, banners and jerseys in 14 men’s and five women’s divisions.
Keweenaw  Automotive from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan won the gold men’s open division, considered by many the top division in the tournament.  
Team captain Zach Hill said the team included three or four players from Houghton-Hancock, Mich., one from Calumet and another from Marquette. Hill said the team liked playing on the Derby Complex ice. 
“It was interesting. The ice was actually a lot better out here than at Dollar Lake,” said Hill. “It was something that we had no idea coming in because this was our fourth year. There was a little more walking back and forth, but the ice was good for the most part. Once you are on the ice, it doesn’t matter. We played our game and finally got the job done to win our first championship.” 
Hill said the team did have some strategy throughout the weekend.
“Try to get up early because once that ice starts getting chewed up it’s tough to make plays,” said Hill. “So if you can get that early lead, it’s easier to defend than try to force the puck up the ice and try to make plays when the ice is a mess.”
Hill said the team had to make some adjustments on Sunday, when the snow hit the North Woods.
“It made it like we were out on the pond back home because we have a lot of lakefront up there, so we spent a lot of our child- hoods growing up on it so it reminded us of that. So we are pretty used to playing in conditions like this,” said Hill. 
The team Four Loko from Milwaukee won the  women’s silver division, winning their third championship in five years. 
Team captain Emily VanAcker said they enjoyed defending their title at the Derby Complex.
“Well, we were a little disappointed that there was no ‘Party Zone,’ but other than that I think the ice is much better on the Derby Track,” said VanAcker. “We still had a lot of fun. And a shout out to Gee O’s, our sponsor.”
VanAcker said this was the 10th year the team competed in the Pond Hockey National Championships.
“We have three championships and we’ve been in five. That’s a pretty good track record,” said VanAcker. “Our friendship keeps bringing us back. Two of our girls are pregnant right now. They are not here, so we had two fill-ins. We are just a tight-knit group of girls. We’ll be back next year.”
Pabst Blue Ribbon from Chicago won the tier one 40-plus division, beating  Simac Plumbing and Heating of Eagle River in the championship early Sunday afternoon. Team captain Steve Holeczy said it was a solid victory over a local team.
“We are mostly from the Chicago area, with a couple guys from other places. We were in it last year, but this is our first championship, so it feels great,” said Holeczy, who was impressed with the Derby Complex.
“We loved this venue. The ice is better. All the accommodations are better — warming houses and everything else. This was pretty cool.”