As the tiny hamlet of Eagle River sits under a blanket of ice, snow and frigid temperatures through the harsh Wisconsin winter months, locals hunker down and wait for warmer weather to bring sportsmen and summer tourists back to town.
For snowmobile enthusiasts, the abundance of snow covered trails and expanses of frozen lakes offer hours of riding enjoyment, giving rise to the town’s well-deserved honor as the “Snowmobile Capital of the World.”
But for one weekend every February, the drone of snowmobiles is drowned out by the sound of steel blades carving up the ice on the expansive Dollar Lake, the home ice of the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships.
There’s another sound that comes with the 2,500 pond hockey players taking over the small Northwoods community – the sound of cash registers ringing.
As players flood into Eagle River the population more than doubles, which is just fine with those who have set up shop around town.
“It’s a blast. They are so welcoming,” said Jon Vidal, 28, of Detroit-based Team Empire, who has participated in all six events. “It’s cool because we kind of invade their
nice little town up here each year, and they seem to like it as much as we do.”
Invade is an accurate word considering how the pond hockey crowd swallows up every available hotel room, cabin, restaurant booth and bar stool for four days each year. The locals don’t mind the crowded grocery stores, cramped shops and busy streets because this one weekend has become an annual rainmaker for businesses.
“I don’t know of a business [in Eagle River] that doesn’t get a firsthand dollar,” said Jake Alward, owner of the Chanticleer Inn, the closest lodging to Dollar Lake that serves as the host hotel for the event.
Welcome signs that adorn not only the typical tourist establishments, but also business such as banks and hardware stores greet players and fans driving through town.
Eagle River Mayor Jeff Hyslop said he’s found the hockey crowd to be big eaters and even bigger spenders, so it’s not surprising to see businesses catering to that audience.
“When pond hockey comes along we have to double our staff for the weekend,” said Hyslop, who also owns Donna’s Café.
“In February it can be a pretty slow time in many ways, and it gives the spark to the community that a lot of the times can help a particular business make it through to spring.”
Fueling the economic spark in Eagle River is the prolific growth to the tournament, which has grown from 40 teams in 2006 to a record 250 teams this year.
“I would describe the growth as phenomenal,” said Ashley Bevan, senior director of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey department. “We never expected it to be this big and this popular.”
Vidal said he and his three teammates spend roughly $500 on food and drinks alone before lodging. While the official economic impact numbers are unavailable, one doesn’t have to be a math genius to see why Connie Heeg, executive director of the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Center, gets so excited when February comes around.
“It’s a perfect match for the type of lodging we have,” Heeg said, pointing out the lakefront cabins that are a perfect weekend spot for a team of five to seven players.
Heeg said Eagle River welcomes the players’ money, but more importantly wants to live up to its new billing as “The Hockey Capital of Wisconsin.”
“Part of the reason we get so much help and support from our volunteer base is the tie-in to local hockey,” he said.
Perhaps no local enterprise cashes in on the weekend as well as the Eagle River Falcons, a full-check travel hockey team that plays in the Great Lakes Hockey League.
The Falcons make sure to schedule two home games over pond hockey weekend at the 1930s-built Eagle River Hockey and Sports Arena. The nostalgia of old-time hockey tugs at the heartstrings, and wallets, of visiting players who eagerly pack the rafters to cheer for the home team.
Head coach Mike Adamovich says the weekend gate, which swells to three times an average game, provides nearly half of the team’s $25,000 yearly operating costs.
“They’re four rows deep in the lobby trying to see the game, and the stands are just packed,” Adamovich said.
“It seems like they’re always cheering for the home team. Our guys are just pumped to the max.”
Word travels in a small town, and the tales of long receipts from pond hockey teams have led other businesses to start going even further to reach out to the pond hockey crowd.
“Any business we can get in the winter is big,” said Lindy Smith, owner of Lindy’s Hideaway, a small bar and restaurant that started advertising on USA Hockey’s Adult Facebook page and gave discounts to players wearing jerseys during the weekend.
BBT’s Pub and Restaurant of Eagle River developed a close relationship with the longtime tournament participant The Laughing Skulls and even provided a complimentary dinner for 47 people to say “thank you” for the business and friendship from the past couple years.
“We’ve kind of adopted them,” said owner Bob Michaels, who estimated that pond hockey weekend is his second-best revenue producer next to Fourth of July weekend.
“When they leave here, they stay in touch all year long. This group of people is probably the best group of the whole year.”
It isn’t just the bars and dinner restaurants that benefit. Local breakfast hotspot Leif’s Café has to keep the pancakes flipping all weekend.
“For the winter it ranks in the top four,” said owner Leif Offerdahl who sponsors one of the rinks during the tournament. “They give me a lot of extra business. They eat big, so that’s a good thing for me.”
The Chanticleer Inn is another of those businesses that benefits, selling out all 20 condos, eight villas and 17 rooms and suites for the weekend. Alward said he feels the community is the perfect match for the tournament.
“[USA Hockey] was looking for a small town that understood hockey and supported hockey,” Alward said. “[The community is] willing to help out and make sure the visitors have a good time, and we welcome them with open arms.”
If further validation is needed that this event and the economic boom it brings with it are here to stay in Eagle River, Alward points to one particular team that was looking ahead to 2012 when checking in for this past tournament.
“They put a credit card down for next year before they even had keys to their room for this year,” Alward said. “One player looked at his teammates and said ‘We’re first in line.’ ”