EAGLE RIVER, Wis. -- Time has a way of washing away some of the details of the first USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championship, but there's one thing Don Mulder can vividly remember about the inaugural event in 2006.
He still cringes when he recalls just how bone-chilling cold it was.
"It was so cold the lead pencils didn't even work," recalled Mulder, who along with his good friend and fellow Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association board member Don Kohlman was a driving force behind bringing pond hockey to town 12 years ago.
A lot has changed since that first puck dropped. For one thing, it's warmer, even by Wisconsin winter standards. With forecasts calling for highs in the low 30s for most of the weekend, this year's tournament will be played in relatively balmy conditions, especially compared to the biting cold and bitter winds that plagued those pioneering teams.
For another, the event has dramatically grown, from 42 teams that first year to more than 290 this year. The high-water mark was reached in 2013 when 327 hit the ice. Another sign of the how far the tournament has come can be found in the 24 women's teams registered to compete in five divisions this time around.
After some early cajoling to get teams to participate, the tournament has become one of the toughest tickets in town, so to speak, as teams race to register the minute the online registration opens. The waiting list can swell into the hundreds.
"We had to beg, borrow and steal teams to come here so we could get this off the ground. We even offered to pay some teams’ registration fees," Mulder said. "After that, it's taken off every year thanks to word of mouth. But we had no idea it would blossom into what it has become today."
For a handful of teams that have made the annual pilgrimage to Wisconsin's northwoods, the event has stayed true to its roots even though it has grown exponentially in size over the years.
"Every year it just keeps getting better," said local resident Mark "Mugsy" DePuydt, who has played in every tournament since its inception. "We've won this tournament before and played in the championship game three years in a row; and last year we won only one game. So not only is the tournament getting bigger, it's getting better."
One thing hasn't changed is how this small town has embraced the out-of-town visitors who pump a significant amount of money into the local economy during the depths of winter.
"This is the biggest event of the year in this town," DePuydt said. "It's impact on the local economy is unbelievable. You have people coming to town spending a lot of money over the course of the weekend at a time when there's really nothing else going on. Local businesses count on this to get them through the season."
Even the tournament registration process has taken on a life of its own. For years, the tedious but necessary process took place in a crammed basement of the Chanticleer Inn, the tournament's host since its inception. But now teams file into the nearby Derby Track for an evening that features a beanbag tournament, a puck shooting gallery and plenty of refreshments supplied by the long-time sponsor, Labatt Blue.
Organizers continue to look for new ways to expand the experience without taking away from the real reason teams come to town -- to play pond hockey.
"Can we improve this?" Mulder asked. "Obviously, there's always things we can do to keep improving this. When you think it can't get any better, that's the time to bring in some new blood with fresh ideas. But for now, the adult department continues to do a great job hosting the event.
"I know I'm biased because I've been here from the beginning, but I think this is the best thing USA Hockey does all year. And that's saying a lot."
Adult hockey not only promotes a healthy and active lifestyle, it requires it. As adults get older, they increasingly need to emphasize regular exercise and a nutritious diet. There’s no easy way to go about it—but there is a fun, challenging and rewarding option that sticks with you for life:
That’s right. Hockey is part of the perfect prescription for an adults’ health regiment. Just ask Olympian and former NHL player Steve Jensen.
“Physical fitness is something we should all be thinking about as we get older,” says Jensen, a longtime certified USA Hockey coach/official. “There’s no better activity than hockey to stay in shape.”
Dr. Michael Stuart, chief medical officer for USA Hockey, says the positives of playing hockey are contagious.
“Participation in ice hockey provides all the benefits of exercise while building friendships and ensuring a fun time,” says Stuart, who is also the vice-chair of Orthopedic Surgery and the co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Dr. Stuart and colleague Dr. Edward Laskowski of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center sketch out specific benefits for hockey players:
“Playing adult hockey is a great way to feel better, gain health benefits and have fun,” says Stuart, who also emphasizes maintaining a balanced diet. As for safety concerns, he adds: “The risk of injury is small in no-check, adult hockey games, but players should wear high-quality, well-fitting equipment, including a helmet and facial protection.”
The Minnesota-based Adult Hockey Association is starting to see employers embrace hockey as a health and performance benefit for its workforce. Some businesses are beginning to subsidize hockey registration fees for employees because they feel the activity fits the policy of their wellness programs.
“It’s not a lot, but we’re starting to see more and more trickle in,” says Dave Swenson, the AHA’s secretary treasurer who also serves on USA Hockey’s Adult Council and Minnesota Hockey’s Board of Directors.
Swenson wants this trend to continue growing, not just to see the number of players rise, but to reward players for committing to a healthy lifestyle.
“I’m hoping employers think about that a little more,” Swenson adds. “It’s not just softball leagues anymore. There are recreational hockey opportunities out there for adults.”
Hilary McNeish, a longtime player, ambassador, and current executive director of the Women’s Association of Colorado Hockey, says she sees the positive results in women’s hockey every day.
“There are so many benefits,” says McNeish, “but the quote I hear most from ladies is: ‘It’s like working out a lot, but it’s so fun, it doesn’t feel like working out!’”
Aside from the physical health gains, there’s also a mental side to the story that’s special to hockey players.
“There are so many positive experiences that come with it,” adds McNeish. “Being able to play a sport that so many deem difficult is also great for the mind and wonderful for your personal attitude.
“It’s great to see the looks from people when you can say, ‘I play hockey’”