Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 27, 2013

A Frozen Morning Of Simple Fun

One has to be a little bit crazy to winter in New England. There is the dark of course, and in some years the snow can pile up to depths that make it seem like green grass won’t be visible again until June. But worst of all is the cold, which when aided by a stiff wind can work its way through multiple layers of clothing until one’s very bones seem frozen and brittle. Yet the real sign of lunacy is not that so many of us spend the dead months in this inhospitable environment. After all, thanks to the wonders of central heating we could hunker down by the radiator until the worst of it passes. No the insanity is demonstrated by how many of us freely go out into the deep freeze; not because we have to as in going to work, but because we want to watch a sporting event and socialize with each other.

How else but insanity to explain the hundreds upon hundreds every day, thousands over the course of three days from early Friday morning to Sunday noontime, who made the trek to White Park in Concord, New Hampshire this weekend? They were all there as willing and excited spectators at the third annual 1883 Black Ice Pond Hockey Championship. Each day the thermometer struggled to crest even twenty degrees, and a steady breeze made any exposed skin feel much colder. But still they came, to an event that has grown larger and more organized with each passing year.

The tournament was started as a fundraising effort to support the city’s recreation department and in particular to expand ice skating opportunities. For years in Concord like many northern cities winter meant skating for young and old on ponds in city parks. But a tightening municipal budget meant those venues were no longer properly maintained, and free skating opportunities dwindled. Now in just three years the pond hockey tournament has raised more than $70,000. It’s no wonder given the long history of hockey in the Granite State’s capital city. The “1883” in the tournament’s name is a nod to the year when students at St. Paul’s School played what is reputed to be the first organized hockey game played in the United States. St. Paul’s was also where Hobey Baker first made his mark on both the hockey rink and the football field. Baker went on to be a two-sport star at Princeton. Today the NCAA’s annual award for the best collegiate hockey player is named in Baker’s honor.

At this year’s tournament 85 teams competed in 6 divisions based on gender, age, and ability. Each team’s roster could have up to seven players, with four skaters on the ice at any one time. The big pond at White Park was divided into eight rinks, each slightly more than half the size of an NHL rink. Each game was divided into two fifteen minute periods. With equipment limited to skates, sticks, shin pads and helmets, pond hockey is not the hard contact sport one sees when the Bruins play the Rangers. There’s no cross-checking and no goalies; indeed there aren’t any goal nets. In their place are two wooden boxes at either end of each rink, six feet long and two feet deep. Made of 2×6 planks, each box has two one-foot slots in the front corners. A goal is scored whenever the puck finds its way into the box through one of those small slots.

After two days of round-robin play on Friday and Saturday, supplemented by fireworks Friday night, a bonfire each afternoon, and plenty of off-ice socializing, Sunday morning brings the semifinal and final matches in each division. The cloudless sky is robin’s egg blue, but although the pale winter sun is unobscured it is no match for the frost in the air. Yet still there are hundreds on hand to see the teams with the best records in each of the six divisions vie for bragging rights and a commemorative engraved hockey stick.

The two big final games are in the Women’s Division and the 18+ Open Division. In the former it’s the women of the Seacoast NEWTS, the only women’s team not from Concord, who claim the title for the third year in a row. The NEWTS went undefeated through the weekend, and seem intent on winning enough commemorative hockey sticks so that each team member can eventually have their own.

The 18+ Open Division numbered fifteen teams, including entrants from as far away as New Jersey and Quebec. These are the best players in the field; more than just recreational skaters the teams feature men who at another time skated for high school or college squads. In the end it is a pair of teams from Concord who skate in the final. It’s Jack Edwards Teeth, humorously named for the rather yellowish smile of the Boston Bruin’s play-by-play announcer, versus the Concord Capitals, who skate in sweaters that look a lot like the one Alex Ovechkin wears in D.C.

The Teeth dominate the early going with surprisingly crisp passing. The puck seems to spend most of its time in the Capitals end, and several easy goals are scored from close range as the score mounts to 7-2. But just when it looks like the game might turn into a rout, a Capitals’ player breaks free with the puck down the right side of the rink. From mid-ice he wrists a shot towards the goal. As if guided by a laser the puck slips through the small opening on the right of the goal box, and we in the crowd roar in appreciation. The stunning goal seems to invigorate the Capitals, and by the end of the first period they have closed the gap to 7-5.

After a brief three-minute break the final period starts, and the Capitals tally two scores in the first forty seconds to knot the score at 7-7. The crowd is three and four deep around the final game of the tournament. We jostle against one another, as much for warmth as for a better view. Both local teams have plenty of supporters. There are cheers as the Capitals pull ahead 8-7 and 10-8, and answering shouts as the Teeth rally to erase both leads. Then with less than two minutes left a Teeth skater puts the puck in the goal box from a sharp angle, and a few seconds later one of his teammates notches another score from close range. Seconds later the final horn sounds, and the team that dominated round-robin play by scoring 101 goals in four games while allowing just 13 claims the 2013 championship.

As we spectators head for our cars the wind picks up, blowing ice shavings from the eight rinks into the air, making for a fine and frigid mist. As I start my car’s heater and press the button to turn on the seat warmer, two thoughts cross my mind. The first is that for all that we focus on professional sports played by millionaire athletes in plush arenas and stadiums, sometimes a morning spent among an excited crowd watching neighbors and friends playing a game they love can be every bit as much fun. The second, as feeling slowly starts to return to my extremities, is that every one of us out there had to be a little bit crazy.

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Responses

  1. Forty-five consecutive New England winters were enough for this boy. I paid my dues, and am now happily “retired” down South. Don’t think I could take another Maine winter if you paid me.

    • This one hasn’t been bad for snow, but last week when there were several days in a row that began with temps in the single digits and wind chills of 20 below or worse, it was really, really hard to get out of bed! Thanks as always Bill.
      Mike

  2. As someone who spent a few winters in a place where we played broomball outdoors well into March, I can appreciate the joys of pond hockey, if not the joy of wind chill. Awfully fine writing.

    • Thanks so much for your very kind words. Your own writing is magnificent.
      Mike


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