Imagine organizing a familial reunion on a frozen lake and nearly 800 people show up.
Imagine each one coming with a hockey stick and skates. Pair them off in teams of four against four and send them out into the Minnesota winter. Station one nonskating referee outside the retaining boards at each of 24 rinks and make room for claques of next of kin to stand in the snow to watch and pound their heavy mittens in support. Make sure a medical attendant is on call. Then courteously advise the contestants to play hockey with zeal - but without actual mayhem.
All of this was done over the weekend on one of the treasured Minneapolis chain of lakes. The result was an end-to-end, unconditional love-in.
The event, the 2006 US Pond Hockey Championships, was described by its sponsors as the largest pond hockey tournament ever produced in the United States. Undoubtedly it was, given the relatively modest field of rivals. The teams spread over three generations and a half dozen states, but predominately Minnesota. They came as clans of believers, all of them committed to ice hockey as the one passion of their recreational lives and, for a few of them, their professional lives. Some had played hockey for five or six years, some for more than 60. What they shared beyond their devotion to the game itself was a sentimental remembrance of its origins on the ice ponds of their childhood.
If you looked closely beneath the helmets and face masks at Lake Calhoun last Saturday and Sunday, you might have recognized a former US senator, Wendell Anderson of Minnesota, waiting for his shift in his gold jersey and the obvious gratitude of onlookers for his 73 years. You might also have identified Brian Bellows, a veteran of years in the National Hockey League. You might have been surprised to see a mite of a young woman, Sarah Simpson, 18, at 95 pounds and 4 feet 10 inches playing against muscular veterans of intercollegiate hockey. The guys weren't going to be steamrolling her. This was strictly nonbrute hockey. It was skate and skate, without goalies, without blue lines, four-on-four, no whistles. And they reveled in it. Why?
"Let me tell you," Mr. Anderson says. He was once one of the popular public figures in Minnesota: governor, then senator, then a defeated senator, and now back in law practice. But first he was a defenseman at the University of Minnesota and then a member of the silver-medal-winning American team in the 1956 Olympics - from beginning to end a man for whom the camaraderie of ice hockey has been his expression of personality. He's also one of its jesters. "I'll tell you why so many of the guys here, and the women, for that matter, talk with so much joy about those years of pond hockey, why they romanticize it. They were kids, the game wasn't structured. They weren't under pressure. They just played it and they saw the open ice, and they could skate with the wind and be creative."
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.
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.