Hockey. The way nature intended. Photo by Isaac Johnson
It’s January in Minnesota. The vast majority of citizens here are dreaming of hopping a flight to California—not vice-versa, like Kyle Krasa of Monterey Bay.
But for the second year in a row, that is exactly what Krasa will do. His dream again involves playing in the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Minneapolis. But on his maiden trip last year, he figured out just how unusual his plans were: The flight was so empty that he was upgraded to first class, where he had an entire row to himself.
That perspective changed, however, after he arrived and saw first-hand what all the fuss is about. It’s a chance to get outside and capture some nostalgia—it’s hockey with some modified rules, literally played on a frozen body of water, with a series of side-by-side rinks created so hockey players from all over can experience what it’s like growing up in the northern U.S. and Canada.
It has also evolved into a guy’s weekend destination complete with beers, laughs, competition, and like-minded strangers who quickly become friends.
There are several entrants in the pond hockey tournament fray, including the National Pond Hockey Championships (Feb. 8-10 in Eagle River, Wis.), the North American Pond Hockey Championships (Jan. 25-27 in Excelsior, Minn.) and the World Pond Hockey Championship (Feb. 7-10 in New Brunswick, Canada).
This weekend's U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minn., ranks as one of the more established pond hockey events in North America. When the event is held Jan. 18-20, it will mark the tournament’s eighth year. The challenges of organizing the entrants, setting up boards, and constantly fretting about the weather are plentiful, USPHC co-commissioner Carson Kipfer says, but so are the rewards.
“It’s totally become this underground subculture,” Kipfer explains. “Some of (players’) best childhood memories were spent during hours and hours on the ice. Tournaments like this are great opportunities to bring those childhood, high school, college friends back together. It’s a great place where guys can just talk smart and drink beer.”
The rules of pond hockey typically foster competition in a more relaxed environment than, say, an advanced indoor league. At the USPHC, there is no checking or icing. Players basically referee their own games—four-on-four contests with no goalies and no lifting of the puck above the knees.
“It’s rare to have a competitive sporting event that captures the essence of youth at the same time,” Kipfer says.
Niels Heilmann, who lives in New York City, is getting ready for his fourth trip to the USPHC. His team also has a player from Alberta and had a former player who traveled to the tournament from Germany, but the core is a group of guys, including Heilmann, who play in a Monday night league in New York. But why travel halfway across the country?
“It’s the whole weekend experience,” Heilmann says. “Some guys do Las Vegas or golf trips. We come to Minnesota. It’s a place to just hang out and compete.”
It’s the outdoor experience that originally intrigued Krasa. He grew up in California and still lives about a 90-minute drive from the nearest indoor rink. But his grandfather grew up in what is now the Czech Republic and often told Krasa stories of playing on ponds. Two years ago, while watching the NHL Winter Classic, Krasa started doing research that led him to sign up for the USPHC the following year.
He couldn’t convince any other California players to join him, so he signed up as a “free agent.” He ended up exchanging e-mails with a man from Iowa whose team was a player short. Next thing he knew, Krasa was on a plane to Minneapolis.
“We got along instantly,” Krasa recalls. “We had dinner the night before. It was the first day, and we were already talking about playing the next year.”
Virtually the entire team is headed back for a second go-round this year. It’s the first of many Krasa, 33, has planned. After all, he wants the outdoor experience to span even more generations. Krasa’s son, Jonah, is not even 3 yet, but he’s already taking the youngster on the long drives to learn how to skate.
“He loves hockey,” Krasa said. “Someday he’s going to come to Minnesota with me.”