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New Technology Helps Preserve, Grow 'Old Time Hockey'

By Nate Repensky, 11/14/17, 1:15PM CST


USA Hockey no longer forced to rely on fax machines to register players for its popular pond hockey event

For Katie Holmgren and her USA Hockey crew, SportsEngine’s Registration platform removes the headache of manually sifting through paper forms and praying that timestamps are correct in the event of fax machine failure.

Ask hockey players from cold-weather climates about their ideal day playing the game, and they’d likely respond with some nostalgic iteration of a frozen pond, a puck and a group of teammates.

Today, with the prevalence of indoor ice, the notion of “old time hockey” may seem dead. Yet for one weekend a year, with the help of SportsEngine’s online platform, USA Hockey returns the sport to its simplest and most beautiful form.

Heading into its 13th year, the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championship is surging with popularity. The tournament, which will take place from Feb. 9-11 in Eagle River, Wisconsin, plays host to 300-plus teams competing in 19 divisions throughout the three-day event. Players hail from more than 20 states, including booming hockey locales such as California and Texas.

The event has steadily grown in size since its inception. The 2018 event has more than 200 teams on the wait list. Although registration day precedes tournament play by roughly five months, such high demand for the first-come, first-served registration once created a strenuous, stressful time for tournament director Katie Holmgren and the rest of her team at USA Hockey. Their partnership with SportsEngine has diminished much of that stress.

“When I started at USA Hockey our registration process still consisted of people faxing in forms and sending emails (to register),” Holmgren said. “We jammed up the fax machine in our office. In the past four to five years, we’ve been using SportEngine’s platform, and the tournament continues to grow and be a success, so we keep getting more and more teams to register.”

Changes to registration with the SportsEngine platform has allowed prospective teams the ability to quickly create an account and then click the registration button the second it appears on the USA Hockey website. For Holmgren and her crew, SportsEngine’s registration platform removes the headache of manually sifting through paper forms and praying that timestamps are correct in the event of fax machine failure. With the new method in place, the 2018 tournament sold out in record time on Aug. 28. 

According to Cameron Eickmeyer, USA Hockey’s director of internet content and development who helps with the technology side of the tournament, the first division was filled in three minutes, and the 320-team cap was reached just eight minutes later.

Once registration opened, it took less than 15 minutes for the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championship to reach its 320-team cap. Photo courtesy of USA Hockey

“It’s still a pretty hectic day for us because we know there are going to be some disappointed people that don’t get into the tournament on day one,” Holmgren said. “But as far as the actual registration process goes with SportsEngine, it’s much calmer for us. It’s like night and day from how we used to do things.”

With SportsEngine helping to eliminate the fax machines and manual labor that were once hallmarks of registration, Holmgren and her team can focus on creating an outdoor hockey experience that is truly special for players and fans alike. The result is something of a yearly hockey renaissance in Eagle River, a town of just more than 1,400, for the weekend of pond hockey.

Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association volunteers and the USA Hockey team assemble 30 miniature rinks across the surface of Dollar Lake where hockey is played in its truest form. There are no Zambonis, no dasher boards and rink flooding is provided by the local fire department.

A panoramic view of the game day landscape includes not only the vast layout of rinks, but also a healthy crowd of family, friends and other spectators who often ride up on snowmobiles to check out the action. Additionally, Labatt Blue sponsors a designated area consisting of fire pits, games and a DJ to complete the fan and player experience.

“You’re essentially in the middle of the woods,” Holmgren said. “You’re surrounded by trees and in the middle of a lake. I grew up playing outside in Minnesota, so It’s like taking hockey back to what it was.

"For the people who didn’t grow up in that environment, it's giving them the chance to play like we did when we were kids.”

In the coming years, as the popularity of the Labatt Blue/USA Pond Hockey Championship continues to grow, Holmgren doesn’t see the tournament changing much. She is comfortable knowing that SportsEngine’s new technology will help to preserve hockey’s traditional roots.

“For us, and from the player’s perspective, we’d like to keep (the event) as original as possible,” Holmgren said. “The nice part is, at SportsEngine, we usually have one person our entire department can go to when we have a question … anytime we need help with something, we have someone we can make a call to and it gets solved pretty fast.”

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