Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 30, 2011

The Simple Joy Of Open Ice

Maybe the mascot made the difference. It was Saturday afternoon in Concord, New Hampshire, the temperature in the upper 20’s with a light snow falling. On the frozen pond at White Park, fifty teams of skaters were mid-way through the three days of the inaugural 1883 Black Ice Pond Hockey Championship, a celebration of and tribute to amateur hockey in its oldest and purest form.

One of the four games scheduled for the 3:25 start time matched up two of the three women’s teams participating in the tournament. It was the Babes of Glory, a team from Concord, against NEWT, a team from the state’s diminutive seacoast. Of all the teams participating in five different divisions (Men’s 18+, two Men’s 35+, Men’s 50+ and Women’s), only the six NEWT skaters showed up with their very own mascot. He or she was dressed as an orange newt (the salamander variety, not the former House Speaker), in a costume that would stand up to any mascot on the sidelines of any professional stadium or arena.

Mascot aside, as the first of two fifteen minute periods got underway the local team was having the better of it. They were more organized, scored early to take a one goal lead, and kept most of the action in their offensive zone. But what the seacoast women lacked in team organization they more than made up for in individual skill. One NEWT player, like all the skaters in all four games that were underway anonymous to all but friends and family, started to reveal skating and stick handling ability that clearly separated her from all of the other players on both teams. She was simply “number 68” and she kept the NEWT squad in the game with a pair of first period goals. At the brief two-minute break between periods, Babes of Glory clung to their one goal lead, 3-2.

In the second period number 68 continued to shine, and she was joined by the smallest skater on either club, the NEWT captain wearing number 3. Time and again number 3 would hold back as the skaters came down into the NEWT zone. Four times number 68 managed to control the puck and release a long outlet pass to number 3, who was all by herself down the ice, with plenty of time to receive the puck, skate the last few yards to the Babes of Glory goal and record an easy score. All the while the orange mascot was jumping up and down on the sideline, cheering the team on; or perhaps just trying to stay warm. When the final horn sounded, it was NEWT 11, Babes of Glory 8.

The three day pond hockey extravaganza was a fundraiser for the city’s parks and recreation department. It was an enormously successful one because of the integral role which hockey in the elements has played in the winter life of northern New England and especially in New Hampshire’s capital city. Just a short drive from White Park sits the campus of St. Paul’s, the elite prep school established shortly before the Civil War. Historians concur that the Lower School Pond on that campus was the site of the first organized hockey game in the U.S., on November 17, 1883. Two decades later, it was at St. Paul’s that the legend of Hobey Baker was born.

Baker enrolled at St. Paul’s at age 11, and would lead fellow students, or at least the few who could keep up with him, on lightning skates around Turkey Pond on winter evenings. While doing so he practiced and perfected his puck handling ability, learning to control the disc with his stick while never looking down at it. In an age when hockey was played without substitutions, Baker’s lightning speed would exhaust opponents. His typical move was to gather the puck in his own end, wheel behind the St. Paul’s net to gather speed, and then streak down the ice to score. By his senior year St. Paul’s was defeating not just other elite prep schools, but college squads as well.

Baker would go on to lead Princeton to a national championship, become the only American in the inaugural class of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and lend his name to the NCAA’s annual award honoring the best collegiate hockey player in the country. In Concord and throughout New England the popularity of outdoor hockey would understandably continue to grow. A stretch of open ice, a puck and some sticks, and a winter’s day would be well-spent. It’s been almost four decades since a young man who grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC learned to skate and shoot a puck on a frozen pond in Hanover. So captivated by the game was he that on more than one late winter occasion he foolishly talked friends into wading through melting slush on the pond’s edge, just to get in one last game before the ice became too thin; as if the slush wasn’t warning enough that it already was.

This weekend, thanks to the determined efforts of dozens of volunteers, the beauty of pond hockey was alive again. The fifty teams, most from the Concord area but some from as far as central Massachusetts, speak volumes to the enduring popularity of the simple sport. With a maximum of seven players per team, they skated four on four for two running fifteen minute periods. There was no elaborate equipment, no body checking and no goaltenders, or at least no human ones. The rinks were defined by 2×4’s laid on the ice. The “nets” were formed by 2×6’s. While they were six feet wide, the middle four feet was blocked by a solid piece of pine, a wooden goaltender of sorts. Thus to score a skater had to slide the puck through a hole one foot wide and six inches high on either edge of the goal, no easy feat. For the several hundred spectators watching as many as six games at once, it was a fine winter entertainment. For the skaters, it had to have been pure and simple joy.

On Sunday morning, after two days of round-robin play, the teams with the best records played for the championships of all five divisions. And yes, the NEWT and their mascot brought the women’s championship back to the seacoast.

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