Jim Fritz marvels at the growth of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships over the last 15 years. He recalls being the first one to arrive at the inaugural event, inspired by his passion for hockey and his fear of not finding a coveted parking spot at the popular Minneapolis lake, Bde Maka Ska.
“It was dark out, and I had my fresh, official jacket I picked up the night before at registration. It was exciting,” says Fritz, who played hockey at Osseo Senior High School and at Saint John’s University, both in Minnesota. “It was an apple to an orange what it is today to what it was then.”
Before their first-ever game at the event, Fritz and his teammates dressed on the lake and laced up their skates by sitting on hay bales. This month, they’ll enjoy the benefits of massive tents, warming houses and plenty of sponsor-hosted activities and giveaways.
There are 2,400 players on 300 teams in eight different divisions to foster competitive and fun games at Lake Nokomis, the longtime home of the event. The U.S. Pond Hockey Championships is so popular, due to space constraints, they must turn away teams, Commissioner Jim Dahline says. There’s also an average of 10,000 spectators who attend over the three-day event.
“Taking it to another level would require a much larger tent and more rinks,” Dahline says. “The event is at a great size for the space that we utilize.”
It’s only fitting the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships calls Minnesota home. Though widely known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the state also has plenty of ponds (worth noting there’s no scientific distinction between a lake and a pond) that host countless pickup games in backyards and parks. With makeshift barriers (usually packed snow), errant shots are costly, not only in losing pucks but valuable game time.
Fred Haberman founded the tournament, and Minneapolis-based SportsEngine has stewarded it since. But the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships isn’t just for locals. Teams fly and drive in from nearly every state, Dahline says, and they try to make the event as inclusive as possible, with sled hockey and lots of kid-friendly activities. There’s even a “Free Agent Board” on the event website.
Dahline appreciates seeing the regulars, including a man who flys up from St. Louis to volunteer with youth night the day before games start.
“It’s kind of a reunion,” Dahline says. “There’s a number of groups who I get excited to see every single year.”
Fritz still enjoys playing and competing. In 2015, his team won the coveted “Golden Shovel,” losing one player to a shoulder injury and still winning the championship down one player.
But that’s not what he loves most about the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships.
“The biggest thing is it’s just the camaraderie with the guys the friendships you make along the way. That’s really why I’m still playing at this age!” Fritz says. “I don’t know how many years I have left playing, but it’s a blast.”
Since its inception in 2006, the tournament has received one billion media impressions including features on ESPN, NBC’s Today’s Show, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, Good Morning America and many others.