Lake Calhoun to host nation's largest pond hockey tournament
Forget about the Stanley Cup.
These hockey enthusiasts are after the 12-foot tall Golden Shovel.
The shovel is top prize for the first U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, which will take place Jan. 20-22 on Lake Calhoun. The event is organized by hockey buff and former Southwest resident Fred Haberman to celebrate what he calls “the purest form of the sport.” Pond hockey - or hockey played on a frozen body of water, in the elements, with nothing more than a shovel to clear the ice - is “hockey as nature intended.”
But the three-day tournament isn't some glorified series of pickup games - it's the largest outdoor hockey tournament in the nation. It will feature 25 rinks on Lake Calhoun and a field of 128 teams competing in open, women's and senior men's divisions. Players will be traveling from New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin and all corners of Minnesota to compete. And there will be nightly exhibition games on a lighted center rink featuring NHL, Olympic and NCAA alumni.
When Haberman started planning the event, he had no idea it would become so large and receive such a powerful response from the hockey community. Originally, there were openings for 96 teams, but all the spots filled the first day of registration and 100 teams requested to be on a waiting list. Organizers expanded the tournament by 32 teams and held a lottery Dec. 6 to determine which on the waiting list would get a spot.
“I knew there was a lot of passion out there for pond hockey. But I was overwhelmed by the response,” Haberman said.
The idea for the pond hockey tournament came from a friend of Haberman's, who showed him an article in Sports Illustrated about the World Pond Hockey Championships in Canada, which has 120 teams and 20 rinks. His friend encouraged him to start something similar in Minnesota.
“I said, ‘You're crazy,'” Haberman said.
But then his passion for hockey started to kick in. He has his own hockey rink on the creek behind his house in Edina, and he's always trying to get as many people as possible together to play a game. Since 1989, he has frequently played pickup hockey games on the Lake of the Isles. Having a pond hockey tournament in Minnesota would be fun, he decided. He and event partner, Paul Ridgeway, started making plans and things took off.
“Once the idea was out there, we realized it was bigger than any one person or group of people,” Haberman said. “As soon as you say ‘pond hockey' to people, they start talking about their own rink or where they learned to play.”
Kenwood neighborhood resident and tournament participant Charlie Hartwell is among those who have fond memories of playing pond hockey as a child.
“My first few years of hockey, there was no such thing as indoor hockey,” Hartwell said. “I remember playing outside and the feeling of my skin warming up and burning as I played.”
Hartwell said he recruited all of the players on his team, and every one of them “jumped at the chance” to play in the tournament. It was just luck that he registered the first day and secured a place in the event, he said. “I just thought this sounded so cool.”
The registration fee for the tournament was $300 per team, 20 percent of which will go to the DinoMights, a Minneapolis-based youth-hockey program, and the Herb Brooks Foundation, which was founded to carry on the legacy of legendary coach Herb Brooks and his vision to “give the game back to the kids.”
The tournament will be held on the west side of Lake Calhoun. The event will kick off on Friday with opening ceremonies and a celebrity exhibition game, featuring such noted players as former NHL standout Phil Housley. Tournament play will be held all day Saturday, and Sunday's activities will include the championship rounds, awards presentations and closing ceremonies. A warming house tent will provide accommodations for players, guests and nightly pond celebrations with musical entertainment. Hartwell, who has even more passion for music than he does for pond hockey, wrote a theme song for the tournament with fellow musician Tim Frantzich. The duo is calling themselves the Frozen Carp and the song is titled “Golden Shovel.” Hartwell decided the tournament needed a theme song after he came up with it and persuaded Haberman to go along with him.
“It's an upbeat blues song that tries to take you back in time a bit, which is what this tournament is all about,” Hartwell said.
Players in the pond hockey championships must be at least 18 years old but can be at any skill level. Because registration was open to anyone who heard about the tournament and could scrape together a team in time, Haberman is expecting players from all walks of life. He also is hoping a variety of spectators stop by to check out the tournament and encourages anyone who is interested or curious to watch a game or two.
“I like the idea of people coming together of all ages and all skills and really celebrating the winter and where we live and the community,” Haberman said.
Each rink will measure 150 by 75 feet, and the center rink will be surrounded by bleachers and lighted for evening exhibition and notable games. There also will be a separate area designated for open skating.
Teams will carry six players, with games played in a four-on-four, no-goalie format. Games will consist of two 17.5-minute halves with a two-minute intermission. Rinks will be cleared in the traditional pond hockey fashion - shoveled off before each game by the two teams on deck. The rules will be no checking, fighting or lifting, and goals must be scored on the attacking side of center ice.
Each team will be guaranteed three round-robin games with the opportunity to continue on to the medal round for a chance at winning the prized Golden Shovel. Winners will have their names inscribed on the shovel, which also will serve as the trophy in future years if Haberman gets his wish and makes the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships an annual event.
But no matter how prepared organizers are, the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships will not take place unless Mother Nature cooperates. If the ice on Lake Calhoun isn't thick enough, the tournament will be called off. There is no back-up date planned, Haberman said.
“We'll just have the water polo championships instead,” he joked.
But the hundreds of players like Hartwell who are gearing up for the tournament are crossing their fingers that temperatures will drop and thick ice will form on Lake Calhoun.
“Hockey is most pure outdoors,” Hartwell said. “That is, to me, what the beauty of hockey is - not all packaged up where everything has to be perfect.”