It's January in Minnesota. You hear that and, if you're not from there, you think ungodly cold. Beautiful, frozen Land of 10,000 Lakes type stuff. The kind of weather smarter people recommend you stay inside for.
That's usually right, but today the outside temp is 40 degrees. One day prior, NASA issued a report stating 2016 was the hottest year on record, the third straight year of record temperatures. It's not exactly ideal weather to be standing out on an iced over body of water, yet there's David Janowiec and his Recess Factory team standing on frozen Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, measuring out hockey rinks and erecting knee-high boards with just eight days until the puck drops for the 12th annual U.S. Pond Hockey Championships.
With nine inches of ice below their feet as they plow, measure, resurface and drive stakes, they're not concerned about the weather. It'll be cold again before the games start. For now, they're "cutting the ice," as Janowiec says, with one Zamboni and an old Olympia resurfacer purchased from the city of Toronto. "Cutting and flooding. Cutting and flooding."
They're outfitting the lake with 25 rinks where 307 teams representing 42 states will converge for 601 games over the course of just three days. The tournament is quintessentially Minnesotan, but its allure is broader. Across the country, people want to see what it's like to play on a pond in a state where they assume babies are born with CCMs on their feet. It's sort of hockey's Field of Dreams, a chance for weekend warriors to reconnect with the game the way they maybe grew up playing it on lakes and ponds when they were kids. Others, like Janowiec, are Minnesota transplants returning to the upper Midwest in the dead of winter like it's a religious rite, a hockey pilgrimage.
Three days before the tournament commences on January 27th, a dozen players hop into an RV outside of Detroit and start toward Minnesota. A flat tire three miles into the trip delays their arrival at a Minneapolis hotel that laid out orange traffic cones to make a space large enough for the camper in the parking lot.
In southern California, it's taken years to talk the team into boarding a plane. "[James Campbell] has been trying for a couple years to get us together for this," says Mark Narain, a skater for the Old No. 7s. "It finally happened."
Variations on these scenes are repeated for teams coming from Reno, Nashville, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Duluth and a smattering of other cities across the U.S. All these people head to Minneapolis to sit outside, freeze their asses off over a booze-soaked, sometimes bloody three days. They do it for reasons that defy logical explanations.
"Because this is great," one skater from Atlanta's Three Hog Night explains.
It's a much colder 19 degrees at 8 in the morning on the first day of the tournament. The wind is brutal. The trees lining the rim of the lake don’t do anything to stop the wind once you're standing in the middle of the lake. This is the famous Minnesota winter you've probably heard of.
There's already no parking. The fastest way to get to the rinks is parking at the far side of the lake and walking through the snow. If you're not sure this is a permissible route, the fear is quickly assuaged. From almost every beach people step onto the ice with a bag over their shoulder, stick in one hand and, often, a beer in the other.
At the rinks, there's commotion. Teams practice on the open sheets. It doesn't take long for the beer tent – nothing more than two folding tables and a bar under a tent – to start drawing customers who quickly put a Labatt in their hand and move to one of the fires burning outside, surrounded by couches.
Behind the tent is another beach. There are lifeguard perches sitting high above the snow. Planes are constantly flying low over the lake to the nearby airport. Friends and family cup coffee with two hands. Some players forgo the warming house and change into their equipment sitting on a couch on the ice.
This is it. This is the frigid mecca people have traveled thousands of miles – or just a few blocks – to revel in.
Honestly, it's mayhem. At any given moment, 20 games are going with a smattering of fans sipping beers at the edge of the sheet. Hundreds of people wander the ice in various states of coming to and from games, to and from the bar, to and from a line of porta potties up the hill. Tiny monitors hung in the warming house scroll through the day's schedule and scores revealing that, yes, it really is as chaotic as it all seems.
"We scored some this time," says Jeremy Govert of the Mighty Drunks. They arrived from Nashville with a roster of players that just wanted to experience the beautiful, frigid madness. "It's just so great. We don't get to play outdoors, ever."
The Mighty Drunks lost their first game 36-0. The second game was a relative improvement, falling just 22-8. But for many on Lake Nokomis, winning doesn't really matter, even when they're taken by surprise at just how good some of the teams are. "We didn't know," says Govert, a radio host with the Nashville Predators radio network. "We've never done this, with no offside and the diamond formations. It took us a game to figure it out."
That's the thing about pond hockey, really: you don't have any rules. Sure, there are some little laws meant to enforce the way the game is played, but this is the sport at its rawest, most amateur level. This is the kind of game you play when you're 11 and there's a snow day, albeit with beer instead of hot cocoa.
"There’s kids skating out there. These kids will never know what it's like to not play like this. I'm 39 and I've never had the chance," Govert says surveying all the games.
Their excitement doesn't differ much from the transplants who grew up in Minnesota and don't see the scene often anymore. A pink-clad team from Atlanta is full of transplants, as are The Little Lebowskis, a team from Reno who skate outdoors in the month and a half they're afforded because of the city's altitude.
Informally, it feels like an even split of Minnesotans, transplants and skaters who have come because they've never had the chance to see what it's like. They've just seen the glossy version promoted by NHL broadcasts a handful of times each year.
"This is a bucket list item for us. Most of us have never skated outside," says Narain from the Old No. 7s.
"It's awesome," says Campbell, a teammate on the Old No. 7s. "You get off the plane and there’s jerseys, hockey on the radio, hockey on TV. There's hockey everywhere."
While The Mighty Drunks floundered, the Old No. 7s showed that outdoor experience doesn’t always have that much bearing on the outcome. They held their own, outscoring opponents 30-10 on opening day.
Beer Money, another California team, was also there to cross the experience off their list, even if their lack of experience impaired their ability to perform. Across four games they were outscored 106-10. "I thought I was good," says Vanessa Svoboda from Beer Money. "But it turns out I'm just California good. I'm Minnesota not good."
Four of the six players on their team have been playing hockey for just over a year. But they give the same reasons for signing up, even if they were surprised that pond hockey doesn’t take place on the pristine ice surfaces you find at indoor arenas. It was something they had to see.
"I put the bug in their ear to come out and see these people," says Shane Francis about how his California team arrived. He played hockey growing up in Buffalo, New York, but was only one of two on the team who had skated outside previously. "This is what these people do, play."
It's true, but so do people from other states. Look at a U.S. national team roster, men's or women's, at any age, and you're going to find plenty of players from Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts, but you're increasingly seeing players from non-traditional markets. The drive to see this scene, to think of a tree-lined lake in the dead of winter as a bucket list item drives home the growth of hockey. Fans who grow up outside of traditional markets and love the game want to see hockey, as the tournament tagline says, "the way nature intended it."
The bucket-listers come to the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships for the full experience, right down to the purple toes and wind-chapped cheeks. They have the right idea. It's not about "The Golden Shovel" trophy, but this weird assortment of humans who can view this as something more than a cold day in January.
Before midday, every day, the beer tent is overflowing and noisy, people worry they'll run out, but they probably won't. On the ice there are unfriendly slashes, even some blood is spilled here and there. But that all fades away quickly as players skate from the rink to the tent where one player from The Little Lebowskis, wearing the team's The Big Lebowski-themed jersey, puts his hands in the air and yells, "I'll do this tournament every year until the day I die!"