The players on Swinging Richards try to play in four to five tournaments per year, all south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Ryan Lovette is a true Southerner.
Born in Florence, Alabama, and currently living in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the farthest north Lovette had ever been was Nashville. And that was in the summertime.
He’d never experienced a day of below-zero temperatures in his life. So, when he arrived in Eagle River, Wisconsin, for the 13th annual Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships, the weather was certainly a shock to his system.
But Lovette was as ready as he ever could be for the cold conditions.
“I actually have handwarmers in my gloves,” Lovette said. “I am prepared. I have probably four layers on, literally.”
There’s cold, and then there’s northern Wisconsin cold. Lovette woke up the first day of pond hockey to a temperature around –15. That doesn’t include the wind chill.
“Yeah, it’s another animal,” Lovette said. “I can’t believe I’m standing on a lake right now. It’s pretty gnarly.”
Team member Bob Buechel, who grew up in comparatively arctic Pittsburgh, pointed at a teammate: “This guy right here you see is wearing socks on his hands.”
That pretty much sums it for the Southern boys, who played in the tournament under the name the South Carolina Swinging Richards.
Lovette was one of a number of players on the team that had never been on a frozen pond before.
The guys made their first trip to the pond hockey championships and had a memorable experience.
“It’s been a blast,” Buechel said. “We had a great time. Just the whole thing, all these people here is pretty awesome.”
The guys knew a couple of older players who have competed in the tournament in the past, and they had always recommended getting registered.
“They’ve been telling us we have to get up here,” said Buechel. “I’ve actually been trying to register a few years and was just too late to the draw. But this year I was able to log on and be able to get signed in really quickly.”
The Swinging Richards, which range in age from 31-42, didn’t really know what to expect about playing in the tournament.
“We really had no expectations other than we were just out on a frozen lake,” Buechel said. “We’ve been told a lot of what was going to happen and kind of how things were run, but definitely kind of getting out here and experiencing it for the first time was fun.”
Playing on the pond for the first time was a learning experience for the guys. They had to figure out the ins and outs of the sport on the fly. The bumpy surface and snowbanks for boards threw the players for a loop early on.
“I thought the ice was going to be a lot smoother, honestly,” said the 33-year-old Lovette. “It’s pretty rough, and I guess the cracks are from it being so cold.”
For never experiencing playing on the pond prior to the championships weekend, Swinging Richards did really well in the 30+ Intermediate Division. The team finished 2-1, with a minus-seven goal differential, but missed out on the playoffs.
“Happy with 2-1, absolutely,” said Buechel, 33.
The guys on Swinging Richards know each other well. Five of them, including Buechel, play on an adult team together in Columbia. Lovette plays out of Charlestown. There aren’t many options for hockey players in South Carolina with the state having just three rinks.
The players on Swinging Richards try to play in four to five tournaments per year, all south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But playing weekly adult league hockey or tournaments in the south don’t compare to playing on the pond in northern Wisconsin.
What was the best part about competing in the pond hockey championships?
“Just seeing how large the hockey community is and getting all these people here that all play hockey,” Buechel said.
“Someone in the house asked me this morning what the best part is. It’s this, just the spectacle,” said Lovette, peering out at the 24 rinks. “We parked a mile and a half away and had to walk up and then we got a shuttle. We didn’t know what we were getting into. We came down the hill and saw this, and it was just fantastic.”