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Vying for the world championship of shinny on the Canadian tundra
Text and Photographs by Peter McBride
In the first period of the first game of the first day, when the announcer leaves the microphone to “add octane to the coffee,” I notice the sound. A mesmerizing symphony of steel cutting ice: the noise of winter, magnified. Forty four-man teams from every corner of this hockey nation and another 15 countries are clamoring at once on 20 outdoor rinks, side by side. Eighty more teams wait their turn to compete.
That din of blades cutting, carving, scraping, and dashing across natural lake ice 20 inches thick is chaotic. For a few frozen, vapory breaths I listen. An occasional holler for a pass floats outward into the snowy woods. There is no other sound except the stillness of a northeastern Canadian winter.
Welcome to the sound of pure old-school hockey. The childhood stick-and-puck game: no referees, no goalies, and no boards; just skates, sticks, gloves, and enough layers to keep your sweat from freezing. (Forget about the toes: They’re already numb.)
Images from the 2009 World Pond Hockey Championship:
There are a few noticeable differences from that childhood game. The pond is the sprawling Roulston Lake, and everything hockey here is in stereo. Call it shinny on steroids. There is a beer tent you can skate into where you can tilt one with Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, and the actual Stanley Cup — on loan for a couple days from the NHL — rests on an intricate columned ice sculpture with a fish frozen in its base. A more modest trophy, the carved wooden Good Will Cup — the one we’re all vying for — rests just to the side of the reflective sheen of Lord Stanley’s.
“Well, folks,” the announcer pipes up again, “the radio here was hydrating, tricks of the trade ya know, but we are back. Looks like you have only five minutes left in the first period of the first game of the eighth-annual World Pond Hockey Championship.”
Another short silence. The symphony of skates continues. “So folks, you’d betta start putting the puck in the net. But don’t fret if you don’t, ’cause we all know it ain’t about wins and losses. That is why we call it da Good Will Cup.”
I put my head down and dig into a footrace for a puck in the snowbank in the corner. My opposition, a lanky kid who looks half my age, matches me stride for stride. We jostle in the corner, neither one resorting to anything chippy. Our sticks clash, the puck flutters off my knee in the wrong direction, and I am thrust into the bank. My heart is pounding against frosted lungs, and bile is rising well into my throat. In just 10 minutes of play, puking seems imminent.
The announcer is right. We need to bury the darn puck. The score is 5-5, I think — actually, I lost track. Leading our team, the Aspen Leafs, is Rob French. He organized our squad and secured our spot thanks to prior WPHC experience. The rest of us are rookies. Sam Kincaid defines our defensive brick wall, and Steve Huebsch is the forward scoring engine. I’m supposed to carry the endurance torch, though I’m thinking this idea might be about 15 years late. We all play in a local league in Aspen, Colorado, and have serious designs to be competitive. You know — sneak into the quarters, the semis, perhaps the finals, and who knows, perhaps clutch the ol’ wooden trophy. My mind wanders.
Having all played puck soon after we could walk, with three of us skating in college and Rob playing Junior B, we collectively have more than 100 years of mediocre hockey experience. Our secret weapon, the one we think will make up for our non-professional-caliber skills, is our high-altitude lungs, which will enable us to out-hustle other squads — perhaps even those with former NHLers.
But game one isn’t exactly falling into place. Some young studs from the Caribbean are matching our speed and gusto. With all due respect to that good-will stuff, how could any of us stomach a loss to Puerto Rico — a country with no hockey, no skating. . . no winter? Imagine traveling 2,500 miles across three time zones to face off against some tan hombres ready to out-skate you before they out-meringue you in the beer tent. No bueno.
Either there’s something we don’t know about Puerto Rican hockey, or we’ve really lost a step. (Initially we were slotted to play Cairo, Egypt, but they arrived late, having apparently left a sandstorm to arrive in a snowstorm. I’m not sure which would be a worse defeat.)
Time to ignore that magical symphony of skates. Time to forget the fireworks, the Stanley Cup, the quaint opening ceremonies. Time to block out the 11 degrees Fahrenheit and the snow flurries. We need to bury the damn biscuit.
When you arrive in the village of Plaster Rock in the southeast corner of Canada, in the midst of a winter storm screaming across fields and roads, it becomes readily evident that you are in hockey country — fanatical, die-hard hockey country.
As you make your way through town, past simple one-and-a-half-story Victorians painted white or cream, you’re greeted by hand-painted figures of hockey players on almost every window. Snow banks tower a good 10 to 15 feet above the streets, and in one yard stand life-size figures of Santa Claus playing goalie with Rudolph and some elves sporting hockey sticks. You can buy a hockey stick at the local gas station from a barrel next to the anti-freeze and the chewing tobacco.
Just 800 hearty folks live in Plaster Rock year-round, and 300 of them volunteer to make the WPHC happen. As we rolled up to the parking area, a sign declared that it was full. We told the attendant we were competitors and were late for the opening ceremonies.
“Oh ya, no problem. We’ll make ya some room, eh. And no worries, the ceremonies are just getting ready to start; Mother Nature slowed us all down a wee. We are on time, just two hours late, eh. So welcome to Plaster Rock, eh.”
Nine years after its inception (the 2010 winner was just crowned; check worldpondhockey.com for results), when only 40 teams came from eastern Canada, the tourney now fields roughly 800 applicants, out of which 120 are accepted. (The top 16 teams get invited back; the rest are chosen by lottery.) From there the field is separated into 20 divisions of six teams each. Each team is guaranteed five games, and if you win your division, you move on and play Sunday in the round of 32, which is when the fun really starts. From now on, it’s single elimination. If you happen to make it to the finals without dying of fatigue or frostbite, you will play five consecutive 30-minute games in one day, with no substitutes. As one leathery veteran in the changing tent put it, “Sunday is the total suffer fest.”
Beginning in 2004, the Boston Danglers owned the Good Will Cup for four years running, but the strategic New Brunswick Wheat Kings, with their four-man trap, stole the show in 2008. We’d heard reports that they were even better now. Of course, gossip flows quickly over frozen lakes. Tales of the skilled New York Boars with their former NHLer, the speed of the returning MTV team, and the toughness of the Canadian Army squad camped out on the lake all slid around the beer tent. And of course the Danglers, now renamed the Easton Express, were back and looking for revenge.
Bobby Hull spent the entire weekend merrily signing autographs and showing off his Stanley Cup victory rings while sporting leopard-skin earmuffs. In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the tourney’s honored guest — something akin to President Obama attending the Sheep Dog Trials in Meeker, Colorado.
I am not a hockey fanatic. I love the game — its speed, grace, and contact. I enjoy the camaraderie and I admire its history. But it’s not my religion. I grew up in a hockey household — my father, a member of the 1961 U.S. National Team, helped start the junior hockey program in Aspen, and for many years he was my coach. To this day, the old man still holds the scoring record at Princeton. Growing up, I spent hours — in fact, I still do — staring at photos of him with his captain’s jersey during college, posing with the Russians (they beat Team USA 11-1 in 1961; my dad scored the only goal) or grinning on the cover of USA Hockey magazine.
I chased the dream a bit. I was far better as a ski racer, but hockey seemed more rugged, more exciting than chasing slalom gates — and more action meant more fans and more girls. I figured if I just worked hard enough, I could make up for whatever natural ability I lacked.
My work ethic got me only so far — fifth line on the Dartmouth varsity during a losing season. I skated in five games — we lost all of them — and never felt more proud to wear a sweater. As a walk-on player for a Division I team I was thrilled; it was only in hindsight that it never quite compared with the fun of family shinny games on our home pond, chasing my brother and sister and father and friends around slushy ice, giggling.
Fast-forward a few decades to when my friend Rob French mentioned that he might need another skater. I shouted an affirmation before I knew even the first detail. How could anyone turn down an opportunity for the title of “World Champ”?
Of course, to win a world title you need to win your first game, and with four minutes left in the first period on Thursday night, we were still trading goals with our Caribbean foes. 5-5, 6-6. Huebsch was setting the pace and the rest of us were hustling, but we weren’t clicking. We needed to rotate, to conserve our energy. And somehow, it happened: We stopped trading goals and started banking our own. After 30 minutes of play under snowy lights, we took our Puerto Rican friends down by a score of 16-8.
In true old-school hockey tradition, we traded gifts. We offered pins; they gave us T-shirts. We laughed and marveled about the tournament, the game, the unseen killer cracks in the ice, and we snapped photos. Immediate friends, we skated to the beer tent, where they even confessed to us that they were actually New Yorkers, before watching the third round of games.
Friday morning we ate the Boiled Owls from Nova Scotia for breakfast, 22-6. (No one likes to hand out a pond-hockey blowout, but the rules tally up points when calculating your ranking for the round of 32, so lighting up the net does matter.) Two of the Owls appeared to be near 60, though they wouldn’t win the oldest-skater award: John Chadwick turned 81 just before the tournament and was no slouch, helping his team glide into the round of 32.
In game three we steamrolled Atlantic Caterpillar, 28-5. Following the games, everyone waded through snowdrifts into town to eat. We generally ate at the local Italian joint, where we shared hockey tales with other teams. Everyone dines in their uniforms, proudly broadcasting team names like the Frozen Asses, the Long Shots, the Cayman Breakaways, the Ivvavick Trappers or the infamous Cairo Pharaohs. FC Barcelona, who sat near us one night, all skated on the Yale varsity 30 years ago. They joked about how they couldn’t recognize each other during their games — none of them had seen each other since college.
After dinner, we marched back to the beer tent for the Maritime Kitchen Party. Most locals arrived by snowmobile. A fisherman-turned-singer, Jimmy Flynn, told one-liner jokes in a rich northeastern accent I could barely decipher. The players sported their jerseys; the locals donned their finest snow-machine attire. It had the feel of a mostly male fashion show for Skidoo, Yamaha, and middle-aged hockey.
Saturday we met the Hey Leafs Win and disagreed with their name, beating them 22-8. We shared schnapps after the game (their gift) and rested on some hay bales before meeting the Montreal Maroons, a tall squad of Canadian soldiers, some recently back from Iraq, who claimed sixth a few years back. They looked half our age and twice as fast.
We ignored the age and size differences and engaged our now slightly fatigued hustle regimen to win our division with a 19-7 victory. Sunday, here we come.
Everything changed a bit on Sunday. The skies were blue, but the air was noticeably heavier. There was less banter and beer in the changing area. Gatorade suddenly made appearances, and the odor of Ben Gay was everywhere. All that good will was getting jostled by some rusty competitive juices.
As expected, the Wheat Kings, NYC Boars, Easton Express, Canadian Army, and MTV teams were all in the top 10, and out of the 32 remaining, we were ranked 12th. We even had a few fans who seemed to be following our games, including one elderly lady in a raccoon hat.
By chance, we met the Puerto Ricans, now seeded 18th, again, and this time they seemed out for revenge. We started a bit slow, scoring on ourselves by accident (my fault), but charged into the lead only to fall behind 7-6 with only five minutes left. Digging deep into our hustle program, we cha-cha-cha’d into the round of 16 with a 10-7 win.
Before our next game, though, our biggest fan — our only real groupie — met us in the beer tent to give us a pep talk. Joe Lennon, whom we met at our hotel a few nights earlier, stared through us with piercing blue eyes and repeatedly told us he was “a full friend. Not a half friend. You got a friend in me.” He looked ageless — either 35 or 55 — and he “worked in timba.”
Today he told us, slurring a bit, “Lads, you keep firin’. If anyone messes with ya, ya lets me know. Not kidding. I don’t mess around and I got powah.” Joe started to weave his way back toward the beer table but quickly stopped. “I gots 50 bucks on you lads that you goes all da way. So don’ts lose or you each owe me $12.50.”
We skated out for game seven, inspired.
The local Labatt’s Blues caught us off guard with their youth, four-player press, and equal hustle. By halftime their lead was 8-1, and we were exhausted and starting to bicker. A lace bite in my left foot felt like a knife cutting my tendons. Fifteen minutes is a lot of time in pond hockey, though, and in the second half we mixed the last of our hustle with more tactical defense and came flying back, sparking some verbal spats with one player who skated the entire game while chewing tobacco. With two minutes left, we closed the lead to 13-10, then 13-11. A broken stick by the Blues chewed up a good 30 seconds and we pressed harder, risking an open net — until a couple of fast-break turnovers caused the score to end up 15-11.
The Blues moved on but lost to our friends the NYC Boars, who advanced all the way to the crowd-filled finals where they lost a tough battle to the Wheat Kings, the defending champs. When the opera finally ended and all the points were tallied, we ended up 10th. Not bad for a bunch of rookie “never-have-beens,” we thought.
As we said our farewells to our new “full friends” and the old world of shinny hockey, I looked around for our groupie, Joe. Sadly, there was no sign of him. “Well, at least we didn’t all lose $12.50 too,” I joked.
A few months later, Joe called Sam, our defenseman. “Laddie, I bet you never thought you’d hear this voice again, eh?”
“Sure thing, eh. I tolds ya, you got a friend in me. I’ll be seeing you lads next year, same time, eh? I knows yas got more.”