EAGLE RIVER, Wis. – What do two diehard pond hockey players do who are engaged?
Get married, of course, on the ice after a long day of playing the sport they love.
The wedding took place on a vacant rink at the 11th annual Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships.
On Saturday night as the sheets of ice were being prepared for the following day’s championship games, Chicago natives Joe Vrtis and Kim Riley officially tied the knot in front of over 50 hockey friends. Vrtis wore his Mulchers team jersey and Riley her Angry Beavers sweater.
Growing up, was this Riley’s dream wedding?
“I actually envisioned it on the Blackhawks ice surface, but this is just one step different,” said Riley, 28. “I like it. It was great.”
One of their friends, who just hours before got her license to become an officiant in Wisconsin, married the happy couple in a ceremony that lasted less than five minutes in the below 30-degree temperature.
“People just do crazy stuff at pond hockey,” USA Hockey tournament director Katie Holmgren said. “We hear all kinds of stories.”
There isn’t a similar story to this one, however.
The couple dated for 3 ½ years before getting engaged on Jan. 1. On Wednesday night, Feb. 4, Vrtis and Riley decided Saturday would be their wedding day.
“It went from let’s get married in about a year to two years to let’s get married within the next 48 hours,” said Vrtis, 31.
The pair had been coming up to Eagle River for two years prior to meeting and didn’t know each other. They met in Chicago and have traveled up for pond hockey every year after to compete on separate teams.
“I’ve been coming here forever and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Vrtis about the wedding. “It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. I bet now that we’ve done it, people are going to be like, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s get married at pond.’ They can probably set up a bracket for it.”
Both Vrtis and Riley were thrilled they were able to play hockey all day and then get married to cap the evening.
“It’s pretty much the best day ever,” Riley said. “It’s legit and now we can celebrate our anniversary every year when we come up here.”
“That way I’ll never ever forget it,” quipped Vrtis. “When is it? Oh, it’s the Saturday of pond hockey. I’m good.”
One of the highlights on the weekend for hockey players and fans was the appearance of two-time Olympian Shelley Looney.
Looney, who played on the 1998 and 2002 U.S. women’s hockey teams, is best known for scoring the game-winning goal in the gold medal game as Team USA beat Canada.
USA Hockey tries to bring in a special guest each year during pond hockey and having former Olympians isn’t uncommon. In 2015, the Stanley Cup made its way to the small Wisconsin town.
“The nice thing about Shelley is she’s heavily involved in all our adult hockey events,” Holmgren said. “She’s been a volunteer for USA Hockey for a number of years. She’s really supportive of all the things we do.”
Looney spoke and gave a toast at a reception Saturday night. She also signed autographs and posed for pictures with folks along with her Olympic gold and silver medals.
“One lady came up to me (Saturday) night and said, ‘Because of ’98 I started playing women’s ice hockey.’ And here we are now and she’s playing in the pond hockey tournament,” Looney said. “It’s pretty cool.”
While Looney was walking around on Saturday watching games, people didn’t realize who she was. However, after speaking that night, the next day players and fans stopped her out on the pond.
“I was walking around and I hear people calling, ‘Hey, Shelley, come over here. Give us luck, give us a speech,’” Looney said.
Hockey has always played an important role in Looney’s life, so after retiring from the game she has stayed involved in the sport in many capacities. Looney has been a volunteer athlete director for USA Hockey for years and sits on a number of boards, including the Adult Council. She’s also been a hockey director for the past 10 years. The last year and a half she’s been in charge of the Buffalo Bison program in New York and oversees both the girls and boys.
She’s always been an ambassador for women’s hockey and strives to inspire people to love the sport.
Looney had never been to the pond hockey national championships until this year and said playing in it in the future is “on my radar.”
Well, maybe next year she rounds up six of her former Olympic teammates to compete.
“That would be fun,” Looney said. “I think they might make us play in a guys division.”
How would her team fare?
“I think we’d be OK, maybe in the 40 and over,” she joked.
Original Wolves Win Gold Title
Original Wolves have created a dynasty in pond hockey.
For the fifth time in the last seven years, the guys who hail from Waupun and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin -- which are northwest of Milwaukee – have taken home a championship.
Original Wolves overcame a one-goal deficit at intermission to beat Northern Exposure 11-9 in the Gold Division championship game on Sunday afternoon.
Northern Exposure was the defending champion.
“Going into it we wanted Northern Exposure,” said Original Wolves team member Ryan Blick. “We knew they were the team to beat. We had a great history with them.”
With the game tied 8-8 with 6 minutes remaining, Blick scored back-to-back goals by working the front of the net.
“We’ve got a lot of good players who can get me the puck down low, and my job is to just stay down there,” Blick said. “Let everyone else do the hard work and I’ll just control that puck down low.”
Up 10-9, Original Wolves added its final goal that was awarded for a Northern Exposure penalty with 27 seconds left.
“We knew their game was going to get physical last year and they were going to take a lot of penalties and that’s exactly what happened again this year,” Original Wolves team member Doug Koerner said.
Original Wolves won the 30+ Silver Division three years in a row, 2010-12, before moving to Gold and winning the title in 2013. The following year, the team was runner-up and last year it lost in the semifinals.
“Since it’s been a couple years off, it feels good,” Koerner said. “We felt the pain of losing in the championship game and it’s a long ride home after a loss, so we didn’t want to feel that way again.”
Heartland Hockey Camp Wins 60+
Heartland Hockey Camp jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the 60+ Division and went on to beat Frozen 7 14-5 in the final championship game of the tournament.
The team, which has members from the Minneapolis area and Deerwood, Minnesota, won its first title last year and has played in the tournament for 10 years.
Repeating as champs is something special.
“I actually win something so my kids aren’t embarrassed when I go home with a story,” joked team captain Jim Madson.
Heartland Hockey Camp built a five-goal advantage by having an aggressive offensive attack. The team beat Frozen 7 13-8 in the preliminary round and knew how to win.
“It was our strategy to play a guy deep and just pound it in, and once we got ahead by four goals we just tried to stay back and play defense,” Madson said. “It’s hard to come back four or five goals in such a short period.”