Entering the annual Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships in Eagle River, Wisconsin, for the first time, the guys on Danger Zone didn’t have any idea what to expect.
What they got was hard-nosed hockey on the pond that they aren’t accustomed to seeing in southern Wisconsin.
“Everything has been just so new and exciting that this is something you want to go to every year to experience that newness every year again and again and again, and that excitement,” Danger Zone team member Ace Emery said. “Look, every single person here is having a blast. Everybody. It’s amazing.”
Danger Zone — which sports Winnipeg Jets jerseys because of the jet on the logo — went 0-3 playing in the Bronze 30+ Division and were outscored 44-15. It didn’t matter that the team didn’t do well, it was a fun experience.
“At one point in one of our games we were up like 2-0. I yelled out to the guys, ‘This is the first time we’ve ever had a lead,’ since I’ve been here,” team member Steve Cross said. “I guess to be competitive would be fun and would add another element to the experience. But for us, we’re just about having fun. We’ve been saying all week, it’s just cool to share a common interest with people that are good people and everybody’s friendly and happy.”
Added Emery: “All together, the talent level is just fantastic. There hasn’t been a single person that hasn’t been fun to hang out with and to talk to. Even if we’re getting our [butts] kicked on the ice, they’re sweet about it. It’s a situation where you get to do the thing you love with people that absolutely love to do it. Everybody has fun. I don’t know if you can say that for every sport, but you can say that for hockey.”
Danger Zone is comprised of players ranging in age from 37-47. Emery lives in Pleasant Prairie, which is a border city in Wisconsin, and all the other five players on the team live in northern Illinois.
What did the guys learn in their first year as a team at pond hockey?
“That we should be substantially better as hockey players,” joked Emery, who coaches squirt hockey. “Honestly, the biggest thing is the bounce, the puck bounce. We’re all beer league players and we all play together, but the puck bounce that you get our here is something that’s totally new. It’s not something we’re used to at all. A tape-to-tape pass is something we expect. Then all of a sudden it doesn’t happen and it changes the game completely.”
Learning how to play the puck can be a big obstacle for first-time competitors.
“This is all, catch a bouncing puck, pass it up this small sheet of ice, and there’s a certain strategy to it that you really don’t know what’s best until you experience it enough times,” Cross said. “You start to gain an understanding of what works.”
One of the hardest things for the guys was taking on veteran teams of pond hockey that have competed in the event for as much as a decade. Emery doesn’t think newbie teams can match that experience of longtime teams.
“I think it’s one of those things that if you’re a squirt and you play some bantam player in open hockey and they’re amazing,” Emery said. “It gives you something to aspire to. I don’t think you even try to match. I think it’s something you appreciate and enjoy and try to challenge yourself to try and get there next year.”
Cross, who played in the pond hockey championship with a different team in 2016, enjoyed the on and off ice camaraderie with the guys.
“It’s great to play with friends and yell at them and complain to them and yet it’s fun to be on the ice with them competing, but yet sharing a common house,” said Cross, 44. “We’re all married with kids, most of us. So for me it’s more fun sharing a house and almost getting back to being just boys — making fun of each other, having fun. Kind of a different dynamic you can experience being married with kids. You get to get away with that and have fun with the boys in a log cabin in the middle of the woods.”
Emery already has plans set up for next year to get the team into the tournament and really play up the Danger Zone theme. The guys are going to be decked out in flight suits and have a tent that looks like an aircraft carrier.
“It’s going to look amazing,” Emery said. “We’re not going to let Danger Zone down.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.