Minnesota’s Coldest Game
WRITTEN BY Molly Brewer Hoeg
The sun beats down on a patchwork of ice. Shiny rectangles dazzle, bordered by low snowbanks near the edge of the lake. Four skaters in quasi-matching team jerseys battle their opponents for the puck, racing up and down the ice, aiming carefully for the low box with two narrow slots for a goal at each end. Spectators bundled against the January chill hover and cheer. Team standings are scrawled on a hand-drawn ladder. “One minute!” the timekeeper calls. “3 – 2 – 1 – Halftime!”
Hockey players clamber over the snow for a two-minute break before resuming their second fifteen-minute half. No helmets, no pads, just sticks, and skates. And a whole lot of enthusiasm.
The absence of a rigorous hockey structure is deliberate here. Pond Hockey embraces the humble origins of the sport, and in particular, its Minnesota heritage. Back in the day, in a state that boasts 10,000 lakes and a frigid winter, there was never a shortage of ice for playing hockey. All it took was a shovel, a lot of sweat, and desire. Hockey was played outside in all weather, at the coldest time of the year, usually with siblings and close friends.
Minnesota’s love affair with hockey is unmistakable in the annual frenzy that accompanies the state high school hockey tournament. It has spawned a wide scope of youth programs from mini-mites all the way up through college play. It fuels the passion of the Minnesota Wild fans. There is a good reason that the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum is in Eveleth, Minnesota.
In an age of highly organized team sports, stressful jobs, and jam-packed family calendars, the appeal of pond hockey or pick-up hockey is resurging. For adults, it’s a way to keep hockey in their lives. “We just throw guys out there and play,” says Kevin McNeely, who played hockey through college. “We figure out teams on the spot and use white and dark jerseys.”
These are exactly the kind of hockey enthusiasts attracted to pond hockey tournaments, which have been springing up throughout Minnesota over the last fifteen years. Played on lake ice, these weekend gatherings spawn a different type of competition. Games are four-on-four without refs or goalies, with no checking or slap shots. Goals are low flat boxes with a slot in each end, requiring greater precision to score. Ages range from pre-teens to seniors, often on the same team.
“It’s fun to go out there and get the competitiveness going,” said McNeely last year. “This weekend is a good excuse to hang out together and play hockey with my college buddies. We come every year.”
That’s just what Nikki Shoutz likes to hear. She started the Breezy Point Ice Fest Pond Hockey Tournament in 2006. “It was just an idea. My sons were in high school, and I thought we could do it as an activity to raise money for their hockey team. I thought it would be a fun thing to do on real ice.” Even though her boys have grown, she’s still running the tournament.
Four rinks are cleared on Pelican Lake just outside Dockside Bar, where spectators and players come and go throughout the one-day tournament. Typically, eight to twelve teams participate. “If we have more teams, we clear more rinks. We play round-robin, and all teams are guaranteed at least two games,” Shoutz explains. “Breezy Point Resort provides two conference rooms for locker rooms.”
Last year, the camaraderie among team members was infectious. The light blue team was new. They had two father/son combinations on the team, and the local high school goalie. “We had never seen him skate before!” a hockey mom exclaimed. The team was feeling its way along. “We haven’t figured out our strategy yet,” Mark Seracki said laughingly after losing their first game.
Julia Miller was the lone woman in this tournament and said, “I’ve played hockey since I was three. My whole family played hockey, my dad, uncles, cousins, and brother. So, they put me on skates too.” She had not played in public for five years, but she got a hat trick in their first game. “I missed playing winter hockey in college. That’s why I do these tournaments.”
Miller played on a team of six. “It’s harder now. Everyone has stuff going on,” she said. But they saw this tournament as a way to play hockey and spend time with friends.
“Twelve of us all crashed at a big cabin about twenty-five miles away for the weekend.”
An air of festivity hung over the proceedings, with family members congregating to cheer and take in other Ice Fest activities. “We just want to skate around, touch the puck, and maybe get a goal or two,” McNeely said. “Tempers can flare, but at Breezy Point, you know you will take your skates off in the same locker room, and will have a beer with them.”
“It is low key,” Shoutz says. “We don’t have a big prize pool. We want fun, not high stakes.” She shares a fond memory. “One year, the light was going down, and it was below zero. Two teams were still undefeated, but they just decided to split the winnings instead of playing a final game.”
In Nisswa, the Northwoods Pond Hockey Classic takes place on Gull Lake. It has grown rapidly, drawing fifteen teams in just its third year. It is the brainchild of Scott Nelson and Jeremy Chatman who met working on ice operations for the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in the Twin Cities. “We decided to start our own tournament. We wanted to bring something up to Brainerd, something for the community to enjoy,” says Chatman.
The two-day tournament starts on Saturday, with championship games on Sunday morning. Play is divided into six divisions based on skill level ranging from the “Loons” who have never skated before, to the “Blue Hawks” who played high school or recreational hockey, to the “Dusty Muffins” who are ages fifty-plus.
Nelson, who was raised in Nisswa, glows when he talks about the tournament. “We do it because we love the sport—pond hockey as it’s traditionally been. We want to bring it to the youth today.” With eight rinks glistening on the lake and families congregating outside in our crisp Minnesota winter, it’s clear this event has hit its mark. “Our focus is not just on hockey, but the community. We have ice bowling for kids and added a family skating rink last year. Friday nights include free youth events.”
New generations of pond hockey players are turned out in Nisswa and Brainerd every year through their Youth Pond Hockey Leagues. Although they play on a regular outdoor rink, they hold true to the concept of pond hockey. “We found we filled a niche,” says Tony Sailer, director of Brainerd Parks & Recreation. “This is for kids who want to learn to skate and want to learn hockey.” Their program started eleven years ago. They hold one or two practices a week and play the Nisswa teams on Saturdays. “These kids would not be playing hockey otherwise.”
Matthew Hill, director of Parks & Recreation in Nisswa, agrees. “This is more casual, not a dedicated sport for these kids. It doesn’t take the whole family’s checkbook and lifestyle.” The season runs through January and February. “The kids enjoy being on the ice without the pressure of having to win.”
With donated equipment and low fees, the program is accessible to all. “Young kids can barely skate when they start. They are skating up and down the ice by the time the season finishes,” notes Sailer. “This is learning a lifetime skill.” With their ruddy cheeks and outdoor hockey enthusiasm, no doubt, these hardy youth are securing the future of pond hockey tournaments for years to come. After all, Minnesota still has plenty of lakes and cold weather.
Tournaments in Central and Northern Minnesota
Breezy Point Ice Fest Pond Hockey Tournament
Pelican Lake – Breezy Point, Minnesota
Jan 8–9, 2021
Green Lake Pond Hockey Championships
Green Lake – Spicer, Minnesota
Jan 30–31, 2021
Northwoods Pond Hockey Classic
Pelican Lake – Breezy Point, Minnesota
Feb 5–7, 2021
Northwoods Pond Hockey Championship
McKinney Lake – Grand Rapids, Minnesota
Feb 13, 2021