Back about five years ago, a committee from the St. Ignace Visitors Bureau set out to find a reason to invite folks to fill the city’s 600 hotel rooms in winter. “Snow? Either we don’t have any or we get bombarded with it,” says local restaurateur Mark Sposito who spearheaded the effort. Then someone saw a Sports Illustrated article about the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Minneapolis, and it reminded the committee that St. Ignace’s greatest cold-weather attribute very well may be its dependably sturdy (often three feet thick) pond-smooth ice out on Lake Huron’s Moran Bay. “Geeze, we can do that,” Sposito remembers saying of the idea.
And did they ever, launching the very successful U.P. Pond Hockey Championship which will host its fourth championship on St. Ignace ice from February 19-21, 2010. This year's tournament promises to be bigger and better than ever. By last year, the U.P. Pond Hockey Championship had already rocketed to 104 six-person teams—a figure that doesn’t count the more than 60 teams that tournament organizers turned away for lack of volunteer referees. Players and their approximately 1,000 fans converged on this Mackinac Straits city from 17 states and Canadian provinces and from as far away as Seattle. Those hotel rooms? Booked as solid as that Lake Huron ice.
Players over 21 of both genders, all abilities and skating backgrounds are welcome. Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford Motor Company, and his Team Ford showed up last year. “They played totally gentlemen’s hockey, they were great skaters and passers, and that is what makes this game,” says Sposito, who is now the championship’s organizer.
Whatever their diversities, the players in the 2009 tournament proved that they share a rugged love of the game. Last year a blizzard dumped 12 inches of snow on the 15 rinks squared off across three acres of Moran Bay. Even so, says Sposito, “We had no complaints.”
The special pond hockey rule that calls for two 20-minute periods (versus indoor hockey’s three 15-minute periods) helps to mitigate nature’s whims by assuring that teams have equal time playing into the wind. Other official pond hockey regs that differentiate it from its indoor twin? Teams play four-on-four with no goalies. Slap shots and checking prohibited.
And one unofficial rule: Have plenty of pucks at the ready—when the little black discs shoot into the dense snow banks that stand in for rink boards, they’re history until spring. “The first year we started with only a hundred pucks. By Saturday we’d bought every puck from here to the Sault,” says Sposito. The 2010 tournament will start with 2,000 pucks.
Championship stakes are more about camaraderie and bragging rights at the après games pub-crawl (free shuttles whisk players and fans to any or all of St. Ignace’s five bars) than big prizes—unless you count the coveted hardwood championship cups, fashioned from Labatt Blue buckets filled with six beers and mounted to chunks of birch, that are awarded to division champs. “They cost us a dollar to make, but they go crazy over them,” says Sposito.
The 2010 U.P. Pond Hockey Championship, February 19–21, will host up to 160 teams on the St. Ignace ice. For information go to: stignace.com.