Homecoming: 2022 Pond Hockey Championships

Pond Hockey Championships Make A Triumphant Return To Where It All Began
By: 
Greg Bates

Trudging through the snow with hockey sticks in hand, they filed by groups onto Dollar Lake.
Excitement filled the frosty air as a brisk breeze slapped the men and women across the face.
Even with the sub-zero temperatures, one thing was certain: It was great to be back.

After last year’s Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, players couldn’t wait to skate again on the storied ice in Eagle River, Wis.
“We missed it more than anything in the world,” said Greg Reiter, who has played in the tournament for 10 years with the Lucky Puckers.

That sentiment was shared by all the players, USA Hockey staffers and the Eagle River community that banks on the annual event.

“Being selfish, we love it, but also we heard so much from teams that missed it that they wanted to be back out here,” said Katie Holmgren, director of program services for USA Hockey and pond hockey tournament director. “It was really important for us to make sure this event happened.”

The USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships has been a staple every February for the past 15 years before the pandemic engulfed the world. The 16th tournament was unfortunately put on hold until this February.

In a time when every facet of life has been impacted by the pandemic, this event was just another in a long list of cancellations.

“You can’t control a pandemic, so what are you going to do?” said Bill Franz, a member of the Lucky Puckers with Reiter. “It was a smart thing to do at the time, and hopefully we’re over the hump on some of that and back to being a little more normal now.”

Keeping The Tradition Alive

Normal is a relative term for pond hockey participants. They love conquering the frigid cold just to play a few games that bring back fond recollections from their childhood as well as adulthood.

“We’re at that age where we have like this tradition that you look forward to—same group, same thing, and it’s now a tradition,” said Steve Schroeder from the Chicago Schroeder. “We had to take a year off, but it’s OK. We’re back and we’ll be back again.”

Tommy Meyer, a 10-year veteran at the event with Creeping Death Chicago, was disappointed he had to miss out on his annual “Dads Weekend.”

“You can’t do this on Zoom,” Meyer joked. “We need to be out and recharge our batteries as family guys and just have fun skating and stuff.”  

Not being able to play last year left a giant void in Tom Budreck’s schedule. He and his teammates were able to skate in the Chicago suburbs to try to recoup the lost weekend, but it wasn’t nearly the same experience.

“I play with all family members—I’ve got my brother, my two cousins, their kids,” Budreck said. “It’s kind of a family affair out here once a year. We just come up here and have a great time.”
Since USA Hockey registration numbers dropped last year due to the pandemic, Holmgren and her staffers anticipated 150 teams would be interested in playing in this year’s tournament. They were pleased when 220 teams signed up.  

 

Returning To Dollar Lake

When USA Hockey ran the 2020 pond hockey tournament, it was forced to play at the World Championship Derby Complex, located five miles northwest of Dollar Lake.

The ice on the lake wasn’t thick enough—18 inches is needed to be able to drive vehicles onto the frozen body of water—so for safety measures, the event had to be relocated.

In 2015, the tournament was also moved to the derby track for the first time due to Mother Nature.
The track, the host site for the annual world championship snowmobile races, has a different feel for hockey than Dollar Lake.


Korzon Takes Passion For Hockey From World Stage To The Pond

Monica Korzon keeps a box of mementos from  HER opportunities to represent Team USA on the world stage.
She kept a journal and created a scrapbook of her two experiences at the World University Games. Her most prized possessions are her game jerseys and a bronze medal she captured in the 2015 games.
“I cried,” said Korzon when she thinks about receiving her medal. “You could win silver, but you end up losing that championship game. Winning the bronze, you won that game and it’s a phenomenal feeling.”
Growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., Korzon put on skates not long after she learned to walk.
After spending one year playing for NCAA Division III hockey powerhouse Plattsburgh State, she enrolled at the University of Michigan. It had the courses she needed for her major and she was hoping to be part of turning the Wolverines’ club team into a Division I program.
A big draw of playing at an American Collegiate Hockey Association school is getting the chance to be selected for the World University Games. Korzon was chosen for the 2013 Games in Italy and two years later in Grenada.
“The experience was so cool,” Korzon said. “Luckily, I had a girl who I knew had been there in the past, Emily Nelson, and she was telling me all about it. It really did mimic the Olympics, but in a college format. When I got selected, I was so grateful.”
After her competitive hockey days were over, she transferred her skills to adult hockey, which led her to pond hockey.
This year at the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships, Korzon played with the Ponies on Zambonis team for the fifth time.
After figuring out the best strategy of playing on the pond in the team’s first year in 2017, the Ponies on Zambonis have captured the Women’s Gold Division championship the last four years.
Playing on the pond fills a hockey void for Korzon.
“You go through an acceptance stage after college. … There’s a serious depression period where you’re like, ‘Oh, man, now what?’” she said.
“This gives you a reason to feel like you’re working towards an end goal. Every year when we win the championship, I still get that giddy feeling.”
The 30-year-old now lives in Cleveland where she is an engineer for cardiac procedures. It’s an intense job. That’s where hockey steps in to slow her down.
Korzon tries to let loose when she competes in the pond hockey tournament. On the drive from Minnesota to northern Wisconsin Korzon and her teammate Holly Lesperance squelched any talk of work and focused on the fun weekend ahead of them.
“We drove through the snowstorm to get here and as soon as we got into the Eagle River area, she was just so pumped,” Lesperance said. “She was like, ‘I feel like I’m at home.’ She loves it here.”
Korzon’s love for hockey is as strong as it was during the prime of her college days.
“If not more so, because I value my time in the game now versus before it was more of a career, I guess you could say,” she said. “It’s always been my passion, but now it’s like genuine joy that I get.”
–Greg Bates

The man-made sheets of ice are spread around the complex, making it more difficult for players to mingle with other teams as well as watch the action.

Out on the lake, the scenery is captivating, the 18 rinks—in past years there have been as many as 30 rinks—abut one another and all the players are concentrated in one wide open area.

“Being on the pond, we’re bringing it back to old-school hockey,” said Holmgren, who worked her 11th pond hockey tournament this year, but her first since 2019. “We love it that we get to have it [in Eagle River], but everybody is just so happy we’re back on the lake.”

Yes, the players loved getting the opportunity this year to be surrounded by trees and natural habitat after a three-year hiatus.

“We were so excited that we got the chance to be back on the pond this year,” said Mike Grainda, who plays on the Rosebuds. “We always have a blast when we’re out here. You’re in the elements and it’s a beautiful day. It gets a little different when the winds come in and the elements come in, but that’s pond hockey. You want to be outside.”

With a cigarette barely hanging onto his frozen lips, Andrew Tomasiewicz, a longtime member of the Recycled Jockstraps, wholeheartedly agreed.

“The pond is where it’s at,” he said. “We got to be on the derby track and it’s great, because at the end of the day you can tailgate, which is fun. But the pond is just heaven. Everyone’s on the lake, everyone’s here together.”

Budreck took a moment early in the tournament between his team’s games to soak up his surroundings. He missed the lake atmosphere.

“It’s just like being back home,” Budreck said. “When you’re a little kid, you grow up on a frozen pond and you’re ripping it up and just having a good time.”

Jason Cobb’s first time competing in the event was in 2020, so he could only pull from his derby track experience before heading into this year’s tournament. A member of the Cincinnati Mohawks, Cobb thoroughly enjoyed the differences in playing on Dollar Lake this year.

Cobb put an edge on skating on the lake, but he noted that the ice on the derby track was superior.
“The cracks were a lot bigger here. A lot bigger,” Cobb said, laughing. “But I like the feel out here better. The ice is better at the track, but you come here to play pond hockey, so you expect to be on a lake and you expect those cracks. To me, it’s got to be on a lake.”

At the end of the day—or a three-day tournament, for that matter—as long as the players were able to skate, that’s all that counted.

“They don’t care what the ice is like. They don’t care how cold it is,” Holmgren said. “They just want to be on the lake.”

Issue: 
2022-03

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