Hog Wild

Greg Bates

Arkansas Team Revels In Its First Foray Onto Pond Hockey Ice

//  By Greg Bates

Walking around Dollar Lake with beverages in hand and smiles stretched across their faces the members of the Ozark Beer Hogs looked as happy as a pig in slop.

Proudly sporting the razorback logo on the front of their red jerseys, these adult hockey players from Arkansas were a long way from home, and loving every minute of it.

By the second day of the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships held in Eagle River, Wis., the Hogs had taken on a celebrity status as opposing teams and fans constantly stopped them to ask the same question.

"'You're from Arkansas? Do they even have ice down there?'" recalled top Hog Ben Goodpaster. "Two rinks in the whole state."

The reactions were priceless when inquiring pond players found out the seven Hogs players made the trek up so far north, becoming possibly the first Arkansas team to skate in the 12th annual event.

"I've had two or three different groups, after they've seen our jerseys, be like, 'Hey, ain't you guys from Arkansas?'" said team member Paul Harrell. "And they just couldn't hardly believe it."

Harrell, 54, grew up in Oklahoma, so living in hockey-rich, ice-abundant areas isn't part of his heritage.

"Out of our whole group, we've got two guys that have never been on the pond before and then the rest have never been to something quite like this," Harrell said. "It's an experience for every one of us."

Back home in northwest Arkansas, the Hogs players compete in the Ozark Hockey League at The Jones Center in Springdale.

"It's a good group of guys you want to travel with," Goodpaster said. "Fourteen hours in the car, they better be good guys."

The Hogs discovered the Labatt Blue USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships by accident. Harrell was on USA Hockey's website when he stumbled information on the tournament. He immediately called Goodpaster to gauge his interest, and before long the wheels were in motion.

Harrell and Goodpaster lined up five other skaters and put a plan together for a road trip into the north woods of Wisconsin.

One of the players they recruited was Kyle Stabenow, who played his fair share of pond hockey growing up in Eau Claire, Wis.

Stabenow, a resident of Arkansas for the past six years, offered some advice to his hockey brethren.

"All of them wanted to get their skates sharpened, I told them no," Stabenow said. "I told them, 'Keep them dull. You're not going to want to cut into the ice.' I was just warning them how bad the ice was and just how much better your hands are going to get just playing and being able to adjust to the puck bouncing all over the place."

With their bags packed and hockey gear itching to be worn, the guys didn't know how they would fare on the ice.

"There's a couple of us that never played high school hockey or organized hockey besides men's league," Harrell admitted. "We were a little worried about it."

Still, the Hogs held their own. And then some. The guys won their tournament opener, 10-6, against the Kung Fu Treachery. They followed that up with another victory over an Illinois team called Shots, and suddenly the Hogs were in Hog Heaven.

"We were like, 'Wow. What the heck just happened?'" Harrell said. "We won our second game, and we're like, 'Woah.'"

Life didn't stay great for long. With a spot in the quarterfinals hanging in the balance, the Hogs hopes were dashed by a 16-4 thrashing at the hands of the Teabags, who would go on to claim the Bronze 21+ title.

"We were definitely hoping for a Cinderella story," Goodpaster admitted after coming up on the short end of a tiebreaker. "We come up here from Arkansas, all the people back home are following us on Facebook. I think we had like 200 likes on our photos. We take a photo with every team, put it on Facebook with the result."

Still, going 2-1 in the tournament was a solid performance for not having a clue for what to expect.

"I thought we did OK against a bunch of northerners," Harrell said.

Before the guys packed their bags to head back home, the talk had already turned to a return trip next year.

"It was a great time," Goodpaster said. "This is bucket list for a lot of us. We'll be back next year, if we can."

Greg Bates is a freelance writer based out of Green Bay, Wis.




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