It’s been a warm and wet winter in northeast Wisconsin. Bill and Kay Nelson live on Kangaroo Lake in Baileys Harbor. In February, the Door County couple said there was enough ice to get on the lake with snowshoes.
Perhaps Kangaroo Lake could have hosted this year’s Door County Pond Hockey Tournament if it was still comprised of just four teams. That’s how it started seven years ago, said tournament organizer Brian Fitzgerald. Since then it’s grown into a popular event, attracting teams from across the Midwest, even when it doesn’t quite go according to plan.
Fitzgerald decided to move this year’s tournament to the Sister Bay Sports Complex, where the ice would be safer and more playable. Getting the venue ready came down to the wire, he said.
“We had so many people chip in and help,” Fitzgerald said. “We flooded through the evening on three different nights, so there’s literally hundreds of hours that went in just to have it skateable right now.”
Moving off the lake didn’t seem to damper spirits. The tournament was held on a sunny Saturday in early February. The Nelsons were among dozens of spectators in attendance. Fitzgerald said the rinks were a little smaller than normal, but the consensus among players was that conditions were good.
“We just try to zip the puck around and have a little fun,” said Dave Mackey, who came up from Chicago’s northern suburbs to play in the fresh air.
It was the fourth time he’d played at the Door County tournament, he said. His team, the Tower Lake Red Hawks, placed first in 2018, he added.
Mackey knows hockey. He played in the NHL for the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota North Stars. Pond hockey is a little different than the game fans of those teams might recognize. Checking is outlawed and there’s no net, so it’s important to keep the puck on the ice, Mackey said.
Instead of a net, most pond hockey events use short wooden goals with small openings on each end. Instructions for building an official pond hockey goal are available on the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships’ website. That event is held each year in Minneapolis.
Like the Door County Pond Hockey Tournament, it’s one of many annual outdoor hockey events held throughout the country. In Wisconsin, Eagle River hosts the Labatt Blue USA Adult Pond Hockey Championships, while the Leinenkugel’s Classic is held in Wausau.
Myles Dannhausen helped organize the Door County tournament. He said it’s childhood memories that bring players back to the pond.
“By the end of the day they’re just happy to be with their buddies having beers and spending time together,” he said.
Many players said they enjoy pond hockey because there’s not a lot of pressure. John Haller said it’s about fun, not finesse.
“The ice is a little chippy,” he said. “It helps guys like me who aren’t the greatest skaters. You know it evens the playing field a little bit.”
Haller’s team, Upper Bunk, came from Chicago, but not every squad traveled from so far afield. It was the first time playing in the tournament for Morgan Menting. Menting, who lives in Green Bay, has been playing pond hockey for about seven years, she said. She was one of the few female players to lace up. Her team was called Zero Pucks Given.
Team names at the tournament get creative. This year’s division winners included Hawaii 5-Hole and Liquid Johnny’s Mullet Garden. There was also the Beers, Puck Norris and the Ugly Pucklings.
It was the fifth time playing in Door County for Alex Wirtz, who lives in Chicago. His team, the Rats – so named because they’re rink rats and they live in a city with “a lot of rats” – enjoys the prime rib at Glidden Lodge whenever they make the trip.
“A lot of good beer up here, a lot of good food and we just enjoy ourselves, so it’s a nice trip to bring all the boys together and get up to Door County and see all it has to offer,” he said.
MUSIC: “Chelsea Dagger” by The Fratellis