Eagle River claims it’s the Hockey Capital of Wisconsin, and for the 3 days of the Pond Hockey Championship, you believe it. Over 300 teams come from across the country to play, drawn by the cold winters that typically ensure good ice conditions. It’s a tough but nostalgic sport that seems to keep teams coming back again and again.
Rinks separated by snow banks are packed in so close it’s hard to tell where fans’ cheers and referee whistles are directed. Bill Trosien is playing for his 7th year.
“I think playing outside is so cool because, you know, for most everybody who plays, it’s great to play on a smooth surface of a rink," he begins, "but I think just coming out reminds you of when you’re a little kid. There’s so much energy, it’s like a nice party atmosphere.”
A party that’s 4-on-4, no goalie sticks, no stops. The teams who come here range from casual reunions of friends who used to play together in school to teams like the Eagle River Frozen 7, a local teams that plays 3 days a week in what’s called the noon league. Dave Hanselman is a regular in that group, though this year he’s just watching.
“There’s some high-powered hockey going on, some of these guys are really good, which is why I’m not playing this year," Hanselman explains. "I’m 71. I think, oh, okay, just a little bit too high powered for me.”
The Eagle River Frozen 7 competes in the over 60-division of the championships. Actually, there are TWO teams over age 60 coming from the same noon hockey league—which means fully 1/3 of that division is local.
“There’s no other game like this. I always tell people everything else is just exercise until hockey season starts," says Jim Patten, who's competing at age 75. “And actually I like the idea that people can still do this at that age." He continues, "Everybody thinks about it being such a rough sport and you’re always getting hurt and all this kind of stuff, but you don’t have to be. I mean, you can play it for a long time. It’s a lot better than running, I’ll tell you that.”
Like most of the over-60s I talked to, Jim grew up playing pond hockey. He recalls being on the lake every day after school, then coming home and playing boot hockey in the streets. And he remembers that first pond hockey championship ten years ago. That first year was so rough, Jim never thought there’d be another.
“The first year, on Friday, the temperature never got above 15 below zero," he says. "On Saturday morning when we started playing, it was 27 below zero. We thought ‘Oh my God, this is dead in the water right here; this is never gonna take off.’…and I really believe it actually helped us because everyone went back and bragged about ‘ you can’t believe what we played in/what we did!’” And from that time it’s just taken off like a skyrocket. It’s just unbelievable.”
Now online registration fills up within 10 minutes of opening. Most of the teams who come once, return—and the oldtimers are in the minority.
It’s not just oldtimers who participate. New teams join in, like Ann Hendrix-Jenkins’ team, the Skate Department, from Maryland.
"We managed to get in at three minutes after the registration opened and now we’re just all like moms on the getaway," she exclaims. "It’s just a crazy scene here and no one at home’s every heard of it…but the secret is how much fun it is."
A few rinks over, a group of young women from Milwaukee playing their 5th pond hockey tournament celebrate by taking a special picture: a bride-to-be and the teammates who make up her bridal party. The championship is sponsored by Labatt’s Blue beer, and that does seem to be how most players are celebrating both their wins and their losses.
A player skates out on the rink with an extra wide shovel clears the ice for the next game. The ER Frozen 7 beats their fellow local team, Iceaged, and is moving on to the semi-finals. But when I ask the score, most people aren’t sure.
"If it gets close, you’ll ask. Other than that, you just play hard until the whistle goes, and you just have a great time," says Iceaged player Bill Trozein. "It’s so much fun, we’re like kids again."
One by one the rinks clear out as teams are eliminated. The Eagle River Frozen 7 advances to the finals. They lose to the Arch Enemies of St Louis by one goal, making this their 3rd time coming in second. There’s always next year. And there’s plenty more winter left, which means these men will be back in the hockey arena at noon three times a week, playing the game they love.