Odds are, if Henry David Thoreau were alive today, he’d lace up the old leather skates, grab a wooden hockey stick and make his way onto the ice at Walden Pond.
He would revel in the joy that comes with playing outdoors in the elements, where wind, sun and bone-chilling temperatures are as much a part of the game as a stick, puck and skates.
It would be a game unfettered by a clock, where rules are enforced by a code of honor and success is measured in smiles, not goals.
Yes, if Thoreau were alive today, he would likely be one of the thousands who each year venture into the woods of Eagle River, Wis., to play in the Labatt Blue USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships.
Like all those who continue to make the yearly pilgrimage north, he would love its simplicity and its wholesome fun. In short, he would discover the true meaning of the game. Pure and simple.
As the event continues to get bigger, it also gets better. It does so by staying true to its roots. This year’s event hosted more than 1,900 adult hockey players on 281 teams competing in 511 games scattered among 15 divisions.
Its strength lies in its inclusiveness, where a record number of women’s teams lace ’em up alongside their male counterparts, and a new 60 & Over division holds the promise that the game can be played by those looking for the frozen fountain of youth.
“We’ve been coming here for six years, and it just keeps getting better,” said Lisa Labovitch, whose team won the Women’s Silver division after failing to record a victory last season. “When I started coming here, they didn’t even have a women’s division.” Now, there are 38 teams competing in three divisions, with no end in sight.
It’s shinny hockey at its finest, as players, many well past their prime, expend just enough energy to chase down loose pucks before doubling over with sticks resting on their knees as they try to suck winter air through a straw.
And when the day is done, they will find a seat inside the big tent, slowly sipping on a beer while peeling off layers of sweaty gear, along with the years that have passed since the last time their skates came in contact with natural ice. Those memories are slowly stripped away and replaced by a fresh wave of mental snapshots that will fuel the desire to return next year.
This throwback style of hockey has a low-tech charm to it, played under a canopy of brilliant blue skies on a snowy frozen lake rimmed by hearty pine trees.
“You can read about it in the paper or see it on NBC, but you have to come here to see what it’s all about. once you do you’ll be coming back year after year.”
“It doesn’t get better than the setting here at Dollar Lake, surrounded by pines and a few summer homes,” Don Mulder said when asked about the event’s allure.
“The way the whole community rolls out the red carpet for this event, it’s like a community event.”
As the president of the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association, Mulder has been on the ground floor of the growth, yet even he is constantly amazed that the event has never lost its small-town appeal even as it approaches the 300-team mark.
“You can read about it in the paper or see it on NBC, but you have to come here to see what it’s all about. Once you do, you’ll be coming back year after year after year,” he said.
“What do they say? This is something you have to put on your craigslist or your bucket list.”
Who knows how much bigger this can get? Looking out at the barren white expanse of Dollar Lake, it looks like you could squeeze the entire hockey-playing universe out there. But the local volunteer fire department and rink professionals from Serving The American Rink are already stretched thin, working from before dawn until well after dark just maintaining the 24 rinks that are already here.
Still, as long as the beer and brats hold out, many would argue that there’s always room for one more player, one more team and even one more division.
There are a lot of places that host pond hockey tournaments, and they all do an outstanding job in their own right. But ask anyone out here and they will tell you that Eagle River, the self-proclaimed “Snowmobile Capital of the World," is now synonymous with pond hockey.
All of this is due in large part to the efforts of one man, Don Kohlman, who even four years after his passing remains a beloved figure not only among Wisconsin hockey people, but fans of the game around the United States.
Back in 2004, when USA Hockey’s Adult Council was looking to get on the pond hockey bandwagon, it was Kohlman who spoke up and said he knew the perfect place to host such an event. Was he ever right.
“I wish Donny was around to see it,” said Mulder, who still chokes up when talking about his long-time friend. “He would have a huge smile to see how this event has grown.”
As the tournament wound down on Sunday afternoon, a small group of volunteers finished their duties and sat in a semi-circle enjoying a well-deserved cold one. As they chatted and laughed about the long hours and days it took to stage the event, one raised his glass and said, “To Don Kohlman.” The rest of the group followed suit, as did others within earshot of the conversation.
It was a fitting tribute to the man who started it all. It was pure and simple, and it came from the heart.