The spectacle that is the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships has been described as, "perfect in every detail,” by Sports Illustrated.
As a gorgeous mid-winter dawn broke over Minneapolis’ Lake Nokomis and the second day of the 2014 U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, it was all too evident the event was perched on the brink of disaster.
A forecasted overnight dusting instead arrived as a rogue, mini blizzard that left 5 to 6 inches of snow blanketing the Twin Cities. Suddenly, there was too much snow and not enough shovels, much less people to wield them. As players and tournament volunteers trudged out to the lake and began clearing the venue’s 25 rinks, all of the day’s start times were pushed back an hour.
Still, the outlook for getting all the day’s games in was bleak.
“Now we have to roll into crisis mode, because there is only a limited amount of daylight,” said Carson Kipfer, U.S. Pond Hockey Championships Co-Commissioner and Sport Ngin Co-Founder and Chief Evangelist. “There’s only so far we can push games back until it becomes unrealistic to finish that daily schedule.
“What was needed was massive manpower to get the snow off the rinks in the little time we had.”
It was too early to expect much response from social media blasts. Email wasn’t going to work either, not at a time of day when the biggest concern is brewing that first cup of coffee, then shoveling the driveway. The solution? Push notifications explaining the predicament and pleading for help were sent out through the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships’ Sport Ngin mobile app.
Come as quickly as you can. Bring a shovel. Even better, bring a snow blower.
“Now people have their cell phones buzzing in their pockets,” Kipfer said.
A few shovel-carrying volunteers showed up within minutes. Then a few more. Then even more. Within a half hour, a person manning a snow blower had appeared. Then another. A snowplowing army had been mobilized and, miraculously, only an hour was lost -- all the rinks were playable when the horn sounded for start of the day’s delayed first round of games.
That gorgeous Saturday ended with the final wave of games being completed in the glow of a postcard sunset. Ironically, an event that uses wooden boxes for goals, humans for Zambonis and is billed as “Hockey, the way nature intended,” had been saved by the latest in today’s technology.
In many ways, the 2014 Saturday Snownami epitomized the successful, if unlikely, marriage of old-school hockey with cutting edge event management technology. The days of posting scores, standings and schedules on massive whiteboards have been replaced by instantaneous updates pushed to cell phones.
“The mobile app is just crucial to the experience,” Kipfer said. “Back in the warehouse, we have these old artifacts - white boards and standings boards. To think about just the production that went into creating those for the event and the volunteers needed to work on those.”
Sport Ngin acquired the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in the summer of 2010 and immediately harnessed its technology to help organize and run the event.
“Before the opportunity came up we had had many conversations about running a showcase event,” Kipfer said. “Obviousy hockey is a natural fit. But we weren’t even necessarily married to hockey at the time.
“When the opportunity came up for this tournament, it was like the stars aligned. It was a sport we new and loved, and something that would make use of all our products.”
Hockey. The way nature intended.
The cumbersome, time-consuming registration system used previously was replaced by Sport Ngin’s more robust, user-friendly Registration software. Dozens of hours of work were eliminated. A new website was built, and Sitebuilder’s flexibility was leveraged in successful efforts to attract and showcase advertisers and sponsors. Sport Ngin’s Tourney software helps power the Mobile App, so if the weather turns nasty overnight and snow starts piling up, well … you know the rest of that story.
Upgrades and tweaks to several Sport Ngin products have been made because of the hands-on experience running an event that attracts 250 teams and 1,900 players. Five-hundred and fifty games are played over three days on those 25 rinks, and it takes 200 volunteers to keep the championships humming. Rosters submitted during registration no longer are locked into place, as teams can update their lineups in the weeks and days leading up to the tournament as players drop out or are added. Teams and rosters in the various divisions are automatically posted on the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships site as they are submitted, allowing for some pre-tournament scouting for old friends or former teammates.
“I think you could probably argue that as many people know us for the pond hockey tournament than they do the software we make in the first place,” said Sport Ngin Co-Founder and CEO Justin Kaufenberg. “Which is actually just fine. And if customers don’t bring it up, I actually find myself bringing it up on almost every call.
“When the customer sees that you can run a multi-thousand player, multi-hundred team, enormous, complicated event on our software, it’s really the single best testimonial we can give.”
Other highly successful pond hockey events, most notably Scott Crowder’s New England-based Pond Hockey Classic, have patterned their use of technology after the U.S. Pond Hockey Championship.
“We all have the same expectations,” Kaufenberg said. “We all want up-to-date information, we all want to be able to see our schedules, we all expect a mobile app these days. These are the things that we have in our day jobs, so to not get them when you are attending a sporting event, it just doesn’t feel right.”
Pond Hockey Classic’s Sitebuilder-powered website even features a picture of Kaufenberg and Sport Ngin Chief Technology Officer Greg Blasko on its home page. Kaufenberg and Blasko are engaged in, of course, a game of pond hockey.
Kipfer and Kaufenberg were rink rats growing up - Kipfer playing on the pond at his parents’ home in central Wisconsin and Kaufenberg spending all his waking hours on the outdoor rinks in Shakopee. Both still play on teams entered in the tournament – as do more than a dozen other Sport Ngin employees. In an annual company tradition, employees are encouraged to join or just watch a lunch-hour pickup game that christens Lake Nokomis the day before the event starts.
“For us it has been a way to prove our authenticity,” Kipfer said. “We go through the joy and the pain to just put on an awesome event. When we talk to people about our products, at that point it is not just reciting some script. We can tell people, ‘Heck yeah, we have lived this.’ Now those conversations have become real.
“On so many levels it proves we are who we say we are and we can do what we say we are going to do.”