Backstory: 'Pondemonium' is hockey at its purest
Pond hockey tournaments evoke a time when kids shoveled rinks and skated for hours in wool caps, through wisps of condensed breath.
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Serious hockey today is played in climate-controlled indoor arenas. But the game's purists still idealize its beginnings, when kids shoveled the snow from the rivers and ponds on the edge of town and skated for hours in their wool caps, through wisps of their condensed breath.Skip to next paragraph
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That was not a fairy tale. Thousands of hockey players still credit the pond as the source of their skating ability and their fondness for the game. It was there where the game's possibilities opened up to them and where the fellowship grew. The only way to re-create that atmosphere, the Minneapolis tournament's organizers knew, was to democratize the event and to maximize the raw fun. So they set up an open class for most of the players, smaller sections for seniors and women, and made it gender equal if somebody like the Simpsons of Medicine Lake, Minn., (dad David and two sons along with Sarah) wanted to play together. One of her brothers, of course, didn't make the first game. This IS pure amateur hockey: He locked the keys in his car.
It was competitive but pristine hockey impossible in the big league arenas of today. These were shortened rinks without passing lines. Body-checking and lifting pucks were banned. The goals were wood boxes five feet wide and four inches high with slots a foot wide cut into the two corners. Those are the targets, not especially easy in full flight. It still took reflexes and stickhandling to score.
For the human penguin onlookers, most of them wool-wrapped and ear-lapped, there was a shoreside warming tent, hot drinks, and sandwiches. Nobody won prizes for high fashion. The several thousand spectators shuffled about without any obvious show of martyrdom and Saturday's temperatures of 28 to 30 degrees F. were eminently bearable.
The prizes awarded to the champions the next day were awarded with a wink but dignity, the Golden Shovels, which the promoters admit are not quite ready to take their place beside the Lombardi Trophy and Stanley Cup. Admission was free. The $300 entry fee for the 116 teams was expected to net over $300,000, not likely to cover expenses. Fred Haberman, of a Minneapolis public relations agency that organized the event, does see momentum building. "We had 116 teams this weekend," he says. "We could build that into much bigger numbers. This is a wholesome, celebratory weekend, hockey people coming together. And this is a big lake."
Beachcombers in Florida might be alarmed at the thought of several thousand people walking about on an ice surface only a foot thick. Experts will tell you that's more than adequate. And the sense of fraternity was almost as thick as the ice.
Hockey players, especially amateurs like those who played this weekend, are aware of the pecking order of the fans' favorites in big-time sports. Hockey doesn't televise well. There's also the fighting syndrome among the macho pros. Hockey amateurs - men, and increasingly women - know that it takes a pretty rare combination of skilled skating, precision, instinct, and reflexes among all players in their sport.
They also know that it began for most of them on a frozen pond at the end of town.