Back To The Woods

Returning Teams Re-Discover Fun And The Fountain Of Youth In Eagle River
Greg Bates

Mark Brunetti always makes sure his schedule is free in early February.

For the last five years, Brunetti has that three-day stretch reserved for hanging with his buddies, catching up on old times and playing pond hockey.

Brunetti and the Pond Stars wouldn’t miss heading up to Eagle River, Wis., to compete in the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championship. This year marked the 11th annual event that ran Feb. 5-7 on Dollar Lake.

“We mark the calendar every year, and actually we’re really stressed out about getting in every year because it’s getting harder and harder,” said Brunetti, whose team travels from the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst.

Competing outside on the pond (the tournament was held last year at the AMSOIL World Championship Derby Track in Eagle River because the ice was unsafe on Dollar Lake) is something that can’t be replicated.

“We’ve played in tournaments in Vegas and it doesn’t compare,” Brunetti said. “We’re all getting older, obviously, and we all have families and we have to pick one tournament to do, so we always try to do the one in Eagle River.”

This year’s tournament was even more special for Justin Richards and his Greatest Danes teammates. Richards tried to register for last year’s event, but the spots filled up so quickly that he and his teammates were left out of the cold, literally.

After competing every year from 2011-14, Richards made sure his team reserved a spot this time around. He has been itching to get back on the pond since the last day of the event in 2014.

“We start preparing for next year the day that we leave,” said Richards, who is one of four teammates from Chicago with the other two hailing from Michigan. “It’s an all-year thing. ... Half the fun is getting out there when it’s sub-zero degrees, layering up and playing.”

Marc Auerbach and the guys from the Viagra Falls Flyers have made the tournament eight straight years. Unfortunately, that stretch ended this year. Auerbach, 68, underwent shoulder surgery in mid-December and was told by his doctor he wouldn’t be able to get onto the ice for seven months.

Even though the Flyers—who play in the 60+ division—will be taking this year off, the Houston-based team will send four other teams in four different divisions.

“Over the years, quite a few people have come up to Eagle River,” Auerbach said. “For a handful it was one and done, scratch it off the bucket list. It’s too cold. It’s too far. But for about six of us, we can’t wait until next year.”

Not being able to play didn’t stop Auerbach from attending the tournament. He had a business trip planned in Indianapolis a couple days before the event starts and made plans to make the eight-hour drive to Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

Success At Pond Isn’t Everything

The Pond Stars have certainly enjoyed success over the years in the tourn­ament. In 2013, they won the Intermediate 30+ division and advanced to the semifinals in every other year.

The Pond Stars’ come to Eagle River with one goal in mind, to win.

“We had such a blast the year we won it, bringing the cup home,” Brunetti said. “We stayed an extra night afterward and we just brought the cup around to all the different bars and celebrated. We definitely want to win it. We also have a party at home for friends and family.”

Doing well in the tournament is never that important for The Greatest Danes.

“That comes secondary,” Richards said. “We’re there to have fun.”

The Greatest Danes have enjoyed a good run in the Bronze 30+ and the Silver 30+ divisions, placing third and fourth in previous years. However, the team has never gone home with the trophy.
The Viagra Falls Flyers have advanced to the playoffs twice in 40+ Tier II and made the finals in 2013.

“It’s nice to be able to play on Sunday, but what we’ve seen over the years is the talent has gotten so much better,” Auerbach said. “The thing is, if you’re playing on Sunday, your team is good.”

Gearing Up For The Pond

As the tournament drew near this year, the teams had their own unique ways of preparing for three days of hockey. And for most  that usually didn’t include time on the rink.

“Practice, it just doesn’t happen,” Auerbach said. “You talk about strategy the night before at the bar and that’s about it.”

Brunetti has a small rink in his backyard that he made for his kids. Some of his teammates will get onto the pond once in a while. The Pond Stars will also rent some outside ice at the YMCA prior to the tournament to skate together.

“I do a little more cardio to get ready,” Brunetti said. “But as far as we go [in the tournament], it gets a little brutal toward the end. It’s getting harder and harder.”

The competition on Dollar Lake is almost as much fun as the camaraderie off the ice whenever adult players lace up the skates.The competition on Dollar Lake is almost as much fun as the camaraderie off the ice whenever adult players lace up the skates.

Off the ice, the Pond Stars do a couple special things leading up to the event. The guys start growing mustaches a month out and they also coordinate to have one matching item to wear. Last year it was grey parkas with the team logo on the back; a different year it was matching fur hats.

“We try to dress the part,” Brunetti said.

The anticipation of getting up to the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships is also a big part of the fun.

“It’s always awesome,” Richards said. “We drive up and stop at a couple places on the way and go to some favorite bars that we’ve found.”

“It’s every guy on the team’s favorite weekend of the year,” Brunetti added. “We talk about it in our locker room at home. It gives us memories for the entire year to go on. It means a lot to us. We love doing it, and it’s like being a kid again.”

Greg Bates is a freelance writer based out of Green Bay, Wis.




Who is your favorite 2023/2024 NHL Rookie?
Connor Bedard
Matthew Knies
Brock Faber
Logan Stankoven
Logan Cooley
Total votes: 4