Once a year, over a wintry weekend in January, les Coloniales hockey team takes to the ice in one of the biggest, most popular hockey tournaments in the country. They’re not kids, or rising stars—just a group of old university buddies, most of whom lived on Coloniale Avenue in Montreal as students at McGill. The game they play forbids hitting, fighting or bulky equipment. Their canvas: a patch of frozen lake in the great outdoors. And for the more than 150 other teams that join them for the Canadian Pond Hockey Championships in Huntsville, Ont., north of Toronto, it’s hockey at its purest. “It’s outside; it’s three days and lot of hockey with good friends,” says les Coloniales’ Adam Elliott, a 33-year-old who works in sales for an investment firm. “It’s probably my favourite weekend of the year.”
That kind of devotion to pond hockey—the game as it is played on a frozen lake, without goalies, and with only the most basic, self-policed rules—isn’t unique. Across the country and the northern United States, pond hockey has developed a quasi-religious following, fed by a nostalgia for a brand of hockey that has largely disappeared in the age of climate-controlled indoor arenas and hyper-competitive youth leagues. From Peace River, Alta., to North Bay, Ont., there are as many as 50 major pond hockey tournaments each winter, luring tens of thousands of players looking to brave the elements, play some shinny and, of course, drink a few beers.
The recent Canadian championships were played on 24 rinks set up on Peninsula Lake over two weekends last month (one weekend was for the masters division). This week, 120 teams will play in the tournament that started it all in 2002: the World Pond Hockey Championships in Plaster Rock, N.B. About 800 teams signed up to vie for the Maple Cup (so-named because it’s carved out of a local maple tree), but given the number of hotels in Plaster Rock (pop. 1,200), the tournament can only grow so big, says Danny Braun, one of the founders and organizers. A few years ago, as the tournament grew in size and stature, Braun says other communities started showing up to videotape the event and interview organizers. “It wasn’t long after that [tournaments] started springing up across Canada and in the States,” he says.
Tommy Haines, 32, grew up playing hockey in Mountain Iron, a small town in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range that didn’t have its own indoor rink. He spent the past few years documenting the revival of the outdoor game in a movie called Pond Hockey, which centres on the first U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Minneapolis in 2005. What surprised him was just how much passion there was for the game among people his age and older—really, anyone who grew up playing at least some pond hockey (even if the majority of their youth hockey was spent on indoor rinks). He says it wasn’t long before NHLers were calling and asking to be in the film.
Most of the big tournaments draw some former pro players—and the hockey, however much fed by nostalgia, is still fiercely competitive. For four years in a row, the world championships were won by the Boston Danglers, a team made up of former NCAA teammates. Elliott recalls playing a team in the Canadian championships that included former NHLer Bryan Trottier. (They lost.) Still, this kind of four-on-four shinny is, in many ways, hockey’s great leveller—a game where all types and skill levels can trade shots. “You see everything from CEOs of multinational companies to doctors and lawyers, to plumbers and pipefitters,” says Braun. “When they get on the rinks, they’re one and the same—hockey players, but also right back into kids again.” And with the short 30-minute games, old timers can hold their own too. John Chadwick is a veteran of the World Pond Hockey Championships. He is 81. His team, the Doug Marshall Chevies (named after a team member’s car dealership in Grande Prairie, Alta.), finished third last year. His teammates, former members of a senior team he once coached, are mostly in their forties.
Chadwick says playing pond hockey re-minds him of the games he played on Mohawk Lake, in Brantford, Ont., when he was six or seven years old. It was a three-mile walk to the lake, “but boy, we all headed there. Everybody took a stick and a shovel,” he says. “This is what pond hockey brings back, those memories.” In all his years playing, his best recollections of the game are still of pond hockey, adds the retired plumber. He’ll be playing again this year in Plaster Rock, mixing it up with “some pretty darn good hockey players.”
“Some of those guys hate to lose, especially if someone like me takes the puck off them. That’s disaster,” he says, laughing. More to the point, that’s pond hockey.