FOYS LAKE – Ryan Ulvin of Whitefish knew his team – the High Stickers of Bigfork – was one of the first winners in the inaugural Montana Pond Hockey Classic on Friday morning.
What he didn’t know was the final score.
“I don’t know, 13-12, something like that,” Ulvin said as he dodged an occasional snowball lofted by his sons, Magnus, 5, and Ole, 3, after the game. “We were down 7-1 at one point, I know that. It was a real barnburner.”
While Ulvin has played hockey outdoors recently, he said it’s been a good 10 years since he did so on an honest-to-goodness frozen natural body of water, as opposed to an ice rink.
And that was one of the main draws for several hundred players from around the West and Canada who are in the Kalispell area this weekend for the tournament.
“It’s hockey in its purest form,” said Ben Pepe of Missoula, who plays for the Press Box Pond Skimmers. “It’s how it was played when it first started, on ponds.”
“No Zambonis here,” said Pepe’s teammate, Brenton Tartaglino, a junior at the University of Montana. “You’ve got to work hard for every goal you get.”
The Pond Skimmers got 11 goals in their first game, and held their opponent, WORT of Moses Lake, Wash., to 1.
“You know what wort is, right?” asked Lew Wagner of WORT as he took a breather during play. “It’s not w-a-r-t, it’s w-o-r-t. When you’re making alcohol, it’s the stuff that sits on the bottom that you get rid of.”
It’s also the first letters of the last names of the five players on the team: Wagner, Orth, Roberts and Todd. There are two Orths on the team, twin brothers.
They didn’t seem bothered in the least that they’d just had their lunch handed to them by the Pond Skimmers.
“For one of our guys, it’s the first time he’s ever played hockey,” Wagner said. “We just want to go out and have fun.”
For Lanti Carlson of Kalispell, one of a reported 100 volunteers helping to prepare and run the five-rink tournament, it was fairly obvious which teams didn’t have much experience with pond hockey.
“You can tell a lot of guys play indoors more than others,” said Carlson, who monitored the rink where the Pond Skimmers and WORT played. “It’s hard when you’re used to protecting your goalie.”
There are no goalies in pond hockey, one of many differences between it and ice hockey, and Carlson sometimes had to remind players they weren’t allowed to hunker down in front of the nets.
Pond hockey is also a four-on-four game with two 15-minute halves that puts a premium on skating and puck-handling. The rinks are smaller and so are the goals – at the Montana Pond Hockey Classic, they’re using two small goals about a foot wide and connected by a metal bar, at each end of the ice.
“With two separate goals, you can’t just take shots from outside,” Carlson said. “A lot of the shots go between the nets. The cool thing is they can actually step over the net while they’re playing. A lot of them hit the middle bar when they shoot – they’re used to aiming at the center of the net.”
The players were tickled to find boards about a foot high at this tournament circling all five rinks, Carlson said. Pond hockey often uses just banks of snow to outline the rinks.
Carlson said he has an embroidery shop that was contracted to produce beanies for the tournament, and volunteered “because it’s only fair that I give back.”
“I think there’s like 100 volunteers,” he went on. “Some were here all day yesterday getting the shoreline prepared. Others have been here since 5 this morning plowing – we got another 4 to 6 inches of snow last night.”
On a bluff overlooking the five rinks on Foys Lake, a mini-city of vendors and a warming tent gave spectators and participants a place to spend time off the ice.
WORT wasn’t the only team with twins.
The Frozen Falcons, officially out of Spokane but featuring players from Utah and Idaho as well as Washington, was one of a handful of co-ed teams competing.
Twins Sara Good of Pocatello, Idaho, and Janel McKinnon of Spokane said they’d been on a 10-year break from competitive hockey but couldn’t pass up the chance to play pond hockey.
Teammate Lisa Green of Logan, Utah, a former Kalispell resident, has played for the past 21 years.
“I played with the women’s team in Kalispell when I lived here, and I played last night with them to warm up,” she said.
Like WORT, the Frozen Falcons didn’t seem to mind that they lost their first game by a substantial margin – either 23-3, or 24-4, depending on who you talked to – to the Mighty Drunks of Spokane.
“They weren’t drunk enough,” Green decided.
“It was more of a hangover,” said Ryan Stowe of the Mighty Drunks.
Pond hockey tournaments are a place where people of monumentally diverse hockey skills gather to “shed their realities,” socialize and play on ice for three days according to Scott Crowder.
A beer or two may also be downed along the way, he conceded, and the Pond Skimmers went one better. Three of the players simultaneously downed shots of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky from shot glasses glued to a single hockey stick at halftime of their game against WORT.
“Only if we’re winning,” Tartaglino explained.
Crowder runs two of New England’s largest pond hockey tournaments, including one on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire that draws more than 200 teams, and well more than 1,000 players. The Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau brought Crowder in to run the first Montana Pond Hockey Classic.
Among other things, players in the just-for-fun and over-35 division, like Ulvin, may have a chance to play against a Hockey Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup champion this weekend.
Lanny McDonald, who helped the Calgary Flames to the 1989 Stanley Cup, has brought in some former teammates from his 18-year NHL career to play with him on a team called Barrel Aged out of Lakeside, where the McDonald family owns the Tamarack Brewing Co.
Tamarack, which hosted a welcome party Thursday night, also sponsors two teams in the open division, one called Hops, one called Barley. They drew each other in Friday’s first round.
“Didn’t need that 10th beer last night,” decided Graham McDonald, Lanny’s son, who was on the losing side.
The two teams are largely made up of men who grew up playing hockey together in Calgary, Graham McDonald said. Like others Friday morning, he shrugged off the loss and focused on the fun that had been had.
That the initial Montana tournament drew 51 teams from as far away as San Diego is “phenomenal,” he added.
“The whole thing’s pretty cool,” McDonald said. “There’s nothing better than pond hockey.”