By Gary Ridderbusch
Hockey will be played on the Dollar Lake ice this weekend. —STAFF PHOTO
A total of 336 teams will converge on Eagle River for the ninth annual Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships on Dollar Lake this Friday through Sunday, Feb. 7-9.
The four-on-four pond hockey tournament has become one of USA Hockey’s most popular amateur events, attracting about 2,000 players from more than 30 states.
The players love the experience of playing outside and coming to Eagle River, according to Scott Aldrich, manager of adult hockey for USA Hockey.
“It’s the journey for a lot of teams getting here,” said Aldrich as he surveyed the rinks on Dollar Lake with a crew from USA Hockey. “People just really love to come here and have the pure hockey experience.”
Last year’s tournament attracted a record 350 teams. Aldrich said this year’s number of teams was scaled back to improve scheduling for teams in 19 divisions.
Games will get under way on 30 rinks on the ice of Dollar Lake, located just east of Eagle River off Highway 70, at 8:30 a.m. Friday. Admission is free to the public, and concessions will be available.
The popular event was named the recipient of SportsTravel magazine’s 2009 SportsTravel Award for the best amateur single-sport event; and in 2011, NBC Sports was on hand to capture the action and aired its footage during NBC’s Hockey Day in America.
“The exposure from NBC Sports Pond Hockey Special greatly increased the level of excitement for last year’s Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships and we see even more growth for 2014,” said Ashley Bevan, senior director of adult hockey for USA Hockey. “We look forward to celebrating the thrill of hockey in its purest form in the frozen tundra of northern Wisconsin.”
Bevan said the pond hockey event is a great experience for the players.
“This event is about the teams, the experience and the camaraderie while enjoying hockey the way it used to be,” said Bevan.
The event will feature teams of adults 21 years or older, divided into 19 no-check divisions for men and women. The tournament will be structured using a round-robin format, and each team will play a minimum of three games.
Bevan said USA Hockey brings the tournament back to Eagle River because the players like returning.
“The adult hockey players are telling us that they want to be back in Eagle River,” said Bevan. “They’ve enjoyed this community and pond hockey is a great event.”
Bevan said the event is coordinated with the help of the Eagle River Recreation Association (ERRA) and the Eagle River Area Fire Department.
“With the volunteerism here in Eagle River, it’s been great for us,” he said.
Pat Weber, Eagle River fire chief and ERRA volunteer, said the number of rinks were expanded to 28 for the 2011 event to accommodate all the teams. Last year, the number was boosted to 30 rinks.
“We try to keep most of the snow off the lake starting in January so we can build more ice for the 60- by 135-foot rinks,” he said. “The rink size has been reduced by 15 feet in both directions this year.”
Friday is the busiest day on the ice, with many teams playing two games. Aldrich said the games will wrap up about 4 p.m. Friday.
Games will start again at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and continue until about 4 p.m.
Sunday’s schedule will start at 9 a.m. and will include semifinal and final games in the 19 divisions.
“We look forward to seeing familiar faces and many new teams for the experience of a lifetime,” said Bevan. “This year’s event is shaping up to be yet another tremendous success with the hard work of our staff, sponsors and local volunteers.”
Use the shuttle
While some parking will be allowed on the lake, Weber said there will be four shuttles running from the Chanticleer Inn and Dollar Lake Road to take players and fans from the parking areas to the lake.
“We are asking players and workers to carpool as much as possible,” said Weber. “East Dollar Lake Road will be one-way traffic Friday and Saturday to assist in traffic flow.”
The ERRA gets involved by supplying referees and scorekeepers for the more than 580 games that will be played over three days.
“There will be more than 300 games on Friday, about 250 on Saturday and finally another 40 on Sunday,” said Weber.
Games will feature a two-minute warm-up period and two 15-minute halves. USA Hockey playing rules will be followed. Rule modifications, a registration form and a tournament schedule can be found online at usahockey.com. There are several local teams entered in the tournament.
Looney to attend
The Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships will include a reception Saturday evening at the AMSOIL Eagle River Derby Track expo hall.
Special guest at this year’s reception will be former women’s national team goalie and Olympic gold medalist Shelly Looney.
Looney won a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics and a silver medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. She played collegiately at Northeastern University from 1991-’94, winning multiple awards including the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) All-Star, 1993 ECAC Tournament MVP and ECAC Player of the Year, 1993-’94. She was inducted into Northeastern College’s Hockey Hall of Fame in 1999.
“The reception will coincide with the start of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi Saturday and the U.S. National Team will be playing Saturday and that will be shown during the reception,” said Aldrich.
All tournament participants will receive beer vouchers at the door. There also will be a raffle with USA Hockey and Labatt Blue/Blue Light paraphernalia on the line. Every participant in the tournament will receive commemorative welcome gifts and division winners will receive prizes at the end of the tournament.
Following a full day of games Friday, the tournament will continue at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The action Sunday will start at 9 a.m. with semifinal and final games.
Jake Alward, owner of Chanticleer Inn, host resort for the event, said it’s exciting to have USA Hockey, a national organization, coming back to Eagle River for the ninth annual event.
“The number of participants has increased each year, with 40 teams competing in the inaugural event in 2006,” said Alward. “The players come from across the country, so it puts Eagle River on the map.”