By MIKE NORTON
It seems more than a little bit strange to be talking about outdoor hockey on a day when it’s supposed to be in the mid-50s, but they’re forecasting snow in Traverse City by Tuesday, so maybe it’s not too early, after all.
Thanks to indoor ice arenas, hockey is now a weatherproof sport, and cities as unlikely as Phoenix and Tampa have their own NHL teams. But hockey purists insist that the sport has lost some of its spontaneity and fun along the way, and they’ve come up with a “new” approach to the game that looks a lot like the way it was played a generation ago.
It’s called pond hockey, and over the past decade it’s spread like wildfire across the northern U.S. and Canada. This winter it’ll make its official debut here in “Hockeytown North” with a mid-January pond hockey tournament.
“What better place for a tournament than here in Traverse City, where the Detroit Red Wings have their fall training camp and the NHL does its annual prospect tournament?” said businessman Michael Pascarelli, director of the Jan. 14-16 Hockeytown North Outdoor Classic. “There’s tons of interest in pond hockey around here.”
Because Traverse City’s moderate coastal climate sometimes brings unexpected thaws, the Hockeytown North Outdoor Classic won’t be played on the surface of Grand Traverse Bay; instead, it will take place on a flooded plain just southeast of the city. Even then (as is typical with pond hockey) there’s no guarantee that perfect winter conditions will always be present. Teams will be divided into men’s, women’s and youth divisions, and since the organizers have never held a tournament before, they have no idea how many to expect.
“This first year we’re setting up for a small number of maybe 70 teams,” said Pascarelli. “Really, though, we’re pretty much playing it by ear.”
As its name suggests, pond hockey is usually played on a frozen lake or pond – but what’s important is that it’s always played outdoors under natural conditions, with all the uncertainties of wind, sun, snow and uneven ice. There are no set numbers of players on a team, no goalies, and no hard physical contact. It’s sort of like pick-up basketball on skates. And good passing becomes extremely important, because a lost puck ends up deep inside the surrounding snowdrifts!
Interest in the sport has been growing steadily – thanks in large part to movies like “Mystery Alaska” and the 2008 documentary “Pond Hockey” – and it hasn’t taken long for organizers to erect an entire structure of matches and tournaments where players can compete in a more formal setting. The U.S. Pond Hockey Championship is held in Minneapolis, and the World Championship is played in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, on 22 separate sheets of ice.
The model for Traverse City’s 2011 tournament is the Upper Peninsula city of St. Ignace, at the northernmost shore of Lake Huron, which has held a wildly successful tournament on the thick ice of the Straits of Mackinac for the past four years. But the phenomenon is not limited to Michigan’s icy north; there are tournaments far to the south near Ann Arbor and near Lapeer in the state’s eastern “Thumb” region.
Tournament play is a little more formalized than bare-bones pond hockey. Matches are played four on four, and although rinks can be in any size or shape, they’re usually the same proportions as a regular indoor ice hockey rink. And while an indoor hockey game consists of three 15-minute periods, pond hockey has two 20-minute periods – that way, both teams spend the same amount of time facing the wind, sun glare or blowing snow.
To learn more about the Hockeytown North Outdoor Classic, visit the Grand Traverse Hockey Association website at www.tchockey.com.