Kevin Rollwagen of WoodStars sails over the goal, avoiding a collision with Matt Erredge of Wright Homes Almost 40. Photo by Helen Nelson
Who says pond hockey is a young man’s game?
In what has become an annual mid-winter rite of passage, 20-year-olds fueled by testosterone and malt beverages have been trying to wipe the ice with the “old boys” from Wright Homes Almost 40.
Each year, those same bulletproof, conquer-the-world kids have been schooled in the fine art of shooting a puck into a wooden box by pond legends old enough to be their dads.
Curt Wright and Dave Bakken, both in their 40s, earned their fourth U.S. Pond Hockey Championship Open Division title as Wright Homes Almost 40 secured a never-in-doubt 5-2 victory over WoodStars on Sunday, Jan. 22, in the championship game on Minneapolis' Lake Nokomis.
Curt Wright scored for Wright Homes Almost 40 in its 5-2 victory over WoodStars in the Open Division title game of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. Photo by Helen Nelson
“I don’t care how old they are, they’ve got guys out here who can play,” said Nick Reichert of WoodStars, a team comprised of 25-year olds (give or take a year or two). “Once you figure it out, I don’t think age really matters that much.”
Wright Homes’ title-game win over a team of former state high school champions (Reichert, who played at Minneapolis Southwest, is the only WoodStars member who didn’t graduate from Holy Angels) offered another textbook example of precision pond hockey.
With Bakken, 44, playing his usual suffocating brand of in-your-face defense, WoodStars was limited to mostly long-range shots that were blocked or deflected. Bakken, the head boys hockey coach at St. Paul Como Park, earned the tournament's MVP award for his gritty play.
“Bakken is intense all the time, he plays hard and he plays clean,” said Randy Gallatin, who is the only player other than team founders Wright and Bakken to have played on all four of Wright Homes’ championship teams. “He sets the tone for our whole weekend.”
Wright, meanwhile, remains one of the great marksmen in pond hockey. He scored on one 30-footer in the championship game and just missed on several other long-range shots.
“Since Day 1, he has been firing goals from all over the rink,” Gallatin said. “It’s amazing. There is some puck luck involved there. But at the end of the day you have to get it in the hole, and there’s no one better than Curt.”
Dave Bakken scored a goal for Wright Homes Almost 40 against WoodStars as he won his fourth U.S. Pond Hockey Championships title. Photo by Helen Nelson
Bakken estimated that Wright, 41, accounted for half of the 40 goals scored by Wright Homes in its five championship round games on Sunday. Wright’s sharpshooting in the second half (he scored twice to turn a 4-2 advantage into a 6-2 buldge) powered Wright Homes to a 10-3 semifinal victory over Ball Park Café.
During the championship game, one middle-school aged spectator remarked, “I like (No.) 26, he can snipe.”
“You mean the old guy?” someone countered.
“He’s not too old,” the young fan said, defending his hero.
Turns out the kid was right. The self-described old man isn't too old. Not at all.
Which isn’t to say that Wright wasn’t feeling his age, even if he still plays like the 20-year-olds so hungry to knock him off his perch.
“I don’t know if I will be able to get out of bed for about four days,” Wright said. “Pretty brutal.”
Wright and Bakken said they don’t know how much longer they’ll keep playing. They are, however, well aware that no team has ever won back-to-back U.S. Pond Hockey Championships titles.
They'll be back next year, offering more "Pond Hockey 101" instruction to overeager youngsters sure they have it all figured out.
“You know, it seems to get tougher every year just because we are getting older every year,” Wright said. “This five-game day is grueling. It’s a pain in the butt.
“We stuck to our system, and it worked."
Wright Homes Almost 40 poses with the Golden Shovel after winning the Open Division title of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships for the fourth time in seven years. Photo by Helen Nelson
Nick Reichert of the WoodStars isn’t chained to the wooden box that serves as a pond hockey goal, but let’s just say he has a short leash.
“I haven’t crossed center ice for six or seven years,” said Reichert, who played at St. Thomas University and in high school for Minneapolis Southwest. “I don’t mind staying back.”
WoodStars played nine games over three days, and Reichert never left the ice, serving as the lynchpin for a defense that allowed a tournament-low (not counting teams that had 1-0 forfeit wins) six goals in four round-robin games heading into Sunday’s championship round of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships Open Division.
Nick Reichert of WoodStars played every minute of his team's nine Open Division games during the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. Photo by Helen Nelson
“I don’t do much skating,” Reichert said as an explanation of his no-rest-break policy. “It keeps our forwards fresh.”
WoodStars, comprised of all former Holy Angels players (other than Reichert), lost to Wright Homes Almost 40 5-2 in Sunday’s championship game. It was the first title-game appearance for a team that has undergone several roster makeovers, so many that Reichert is the lone original member remaining on the team.
The current lineup, which also includes Kevin Rollwagen, Mike Taylor, Doug Nelson, Ross Cooney and Tyler Howells, all in their mid-20s, has been together for the past four years. Last year, four-time tournament champion Wright Homes Almost 40 beat WoodStars 3-1 in the second round of the 32-team championship bracket.
“That team is young, and they have given us two real tough games,” said Wright Homes’ veteran Dave Bakken. “They are going to be in the hunt for a long time.”
Like so many teams that have played, and lost to, Wright Homes over the years, WoodStars has tweaked its playing style to mimic the undisputed kings of the pond.
“That’s how we learned how to make it this far, it was by playing those guys earlier (on championship Sunday) last year,” said Taylor, a 2004 Mr. Hockey finalist who played at Harvard, after Sunday’s loss to Wright Homes. “We said, ‘We’ve go to play more like them.’ ”