Four layers on top, three layers on bottom, glove liners, neck gaiter, fleece bicycle helmet liner, and one pair of thin wool socks for my feet. Check—I’m ready for some pond hockey. Outside the temperature is near zero degrees Fahrenheit and the windchill is close to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Welcome to the 2015 New England Pond Hockey Festival in Rangeley Maine! We’ve had relatively balmy temperatures in the past two years so this is the year of payback. It’s so cold the ice is cracking immensely and in the midst of our first game a chainsaw is fired up to cut a hole in the ice to relieve pressure on the rink ice. And you can’t wipe the smile or determination off anyone’s face playing.
Little did I know that when I played my first pond hockey three years ago I would be joining what has been described as the fastest growing segment of hockey in the United States. The Rangeley Tournament started just nine years ago and has grown modestly compared to other tournaments which have hundreds of teams. When I was first asked to play three years ago, I had never skated on ice other than the smooth surface I had at my local ice arenas. Luckily, the weather was cold enough and a friend let me know the local kids were playing on a local pond. So, I went down and after carefully walking out in snow I made my way to the cleared surface. Bumps, cracks and uneven surfaces welcomed me. But so did the freedom of skating outside where the only limit was where the ice was cleared. And the initial wariness I felt melted away, like the cold did at the makeshift firepit the families gathered around afterwards. From that initial introduction, I have come to look forward to the pond hockey tournament and the sounds and sights of pond hockey as the ice cracks underneath and our skates make sharp scraping sounds. The snow piles that surround the rink and the cries to the scorer for another puck when one is lost in the snow drifts. The quick passing and stickplay and the satisfying thunk of a puck hitting the wood comprising the goal.
If you have never played pond hockey, I learned some simple rules. No goalie, no cherrypicking, no acting like a goalie, and no referee. Four people on a side with two or three folks as subs. Fifteen minute halves and an airhorn sounds the beginning and end of each segment. More importantly, pond hockey at its best is about fairness and attitude. In the canvas warming tents, with hay bales for seating and heaters, we can change into skates and get a welcome respite from the wind, and there the true essence of pond hockey to me emerges. It is camaraderie of playing the game, whether man or woman, boy or girl. The “how’d you do?” and “here, let me move my stuff so you can change” sentiments flow, in addition to the free water. Although we care about winning, the celebration of hockey is what is truly at heart. We didn’t win this year but were happy for the team that did. We were glad to support a tournament that in turn supports the local skating club for kids.
In closing, if you get a chance, whether it be in a tournament or just on local ice, take the plunge and try skating on ice the way nature intended. Maybe if you are lucky, you’ll get to experience black ice next year. Maybe you just get to revel in being outside with a blue sky and sunshine on your face. Just remember to get your skates sharpened afterward before you hit that smooth indoors ice. Hope to see you outside next year at Rangeley!