One chilly day decades ago, after playing hockey with sons Sean and Pat on the commonly-called Muck Hole in Leeds, we were followed through the woods by a young white fox, a pleasant enough critter, who seemed to be auditioning for pethood. We all three wanted to stroke its fur, to scratch its ears, to take it home, to name it Whitey, but adulthood suddenly broke up the lovefest, and I pretty much sensed that any wild animal that friendly must be wrong in the head and would likely give us rabies, so I chased it away with my stick. A sad memory, sure, but for us it’s always been about a shared brush with nature after a good romp on a frozen pond.
This story is a little bit about us, I guess, and a lot about a young man from New Hampshire, a former UMASS Minuteman, who recaptured a love of the sport by returning to his roots, and creating a whopper of a tradition in the process.
MEREDITH, NEW HAMPSHIRE
As soon as Scott Crowder gets the official go-ahead that the ice on Lake Winnipesaukee is safe – usually by early December – he and his merry band of five stake out ten acres on Meredith Bay and plow off a continent of snow. From there they will construct 26 nearly regulation-sized hockey rinks with a grid of skateways and snowy walkways to connect them, and they will blow snow, brush snow and groom, groom, groom until the three-day phenomenon known as the New England Pond Hockey Classic gets underway February 1. By then he will have hired 40 additional workers to pull it off. 280 teams will converge on this cold little hamlet, along with their own rowdy fans – heartily welcomed, it seems, from every storefront and tavern in town. Each eight-member club plays two games on Friday and two more on Saturday. You must win at least three to have any chance of making it to the quarterfinals on Sunday.
Pond hockey, as pure and rough-around-the-edges a sport as there ever was, played under fir tree skies on an increasingly craggy sheet of crystallization, is alive and well up here, where the ice, unlike the paradoxical waters of Mass, hardens up like a 70-square mile bolt of iron and stays that way til early spring.
Now in its 10th year, the Classic is the brainchild of Crowder, 33, who grew up on this lake and played for the UMASS Minutemen from 2005-2009, under coach Toot Cahoon. There is a telling video of the charismatic Crowder pushing a puck across a pristine, devoid-of-snow Winnipesaukee. “This is heaven out here!” he cries, with nothing but sky above and thick ice below.
From far and flung they come, in splendid uniforms, often sporting suggestive names – “Carolina Pulled Pork” of Cary NC; the “Laughing Skulls” from Philadelphia; “ Munny Shot” from East Lansing MI; the “Green Mountain Boys” of Groton VT; “Hitmen” from Richmond VA; the “Richard Craniums (Dick Heads)” of Londonderry NH; the “No ReGretzkies” from Blantford Ontario; “MooseKnuckles” from Lowell; “Shrinkage” from Framingham; and the prophetically-named “Done By Saturday” out of Bridgewater. One guy even flew over from France, a free agent, placed on a team that was short a body.
With the trucks, the snowmobiles, the bands, the beer, the vendors, the motorcycles, the warming tents, the Olympic Village-sized throngs of people on skates or otherwise, you have to keep reminding yourself that you are cavorting on two feet of ice. A fall or two reinforces this, but still.
“You can’t beat the camaraderie,” says Jay Driscoll, 60, of the Milton Maple Leafs, who won the Over-50 division last year. “You can’t do this sorta thing every weekend. So well run. The conditions are challenging, but that’s pond hockey.” Though Driscoll played organized youth hockey at Milton’s MDC rink, his fondest memories are when the town flooded the grounds out back, and you could really play.
Then, a ship-shaking horn blasts all over Meredith like the arrival of the Boston & Maine. A symphony of ice hockey breaks out at once. It’s four on four, no goalies, no timeouts, an off to the races, all-out adrenaline stick-fest. There are nine divisions based on age, experience or gender, but, make no mistake, there are no beginners here – these are HOCKEY players. It’s about 10 Fahrenheit to start the day, but with the in-and-out sun it’ll get up to 23 for the afternoon games, perfect for pond puck.
The first thing that strikes you is the goal itself. As anyone who’s played outdoors will attest, slap-shots from 30 feet out invariably sail into the woods. Woods are the enemy of skates, number one, and if the woods are snowy, the puck will not reveal itself until spring. But this goal changes the world. Manufactured by NiceRink, it’s got the familiar red pipes and white netting of any goal found elsewhere, but this thing is only two feet long, with a double net only six inches off the ice! And the boards that enclose each rink are only a couple feet high – the result is a game that must be played low, with puck-handling prowess and passing a plus, or, as Scott Crowder grins, “shooting at the low corners of a real goal.”
Crowder’s longtime team at the Classic is the Meredith Whalers, mostly high school buds who sport the green jersey of the long-extinct NFL team from Hartford, but Crowder himself still wears the maroon helmet from his Minutemen years. “We had some good teams; made the national tournament one year,” he says, quickly grabbing his gear and leaving PHC headquarters for the Whaler’s 2pm game on Rink 7. “Not a chance,” he says, of the Whalers making the semis, “Too many good teams in the Over-30. But that’s not what this tournament’s about.”
Crowder grew up in a hockey house – his dad is longtime college coach and former Boston Bruin Bruce Crowder. But he and his brother were never pressured to be the next Gretzky or Orr. “It allowed us to simply fall in love with the game,” he says, most of their skills honed on lake ice. His time with UMASS was remembered chiefly as the reign of legendary goaltender Jonathan Quick. “Yeah, I had a nice relationship with Quickie,” says Crowder. “We came in together in 2005. I spent a lotta time firing pucks at him. You could see he had it. Yeah, it’s cliché that he’s named Quick, but he’s the quickest I ever saw, so fast, so fluid. He obviously left and went on to Team USA and the L.A. Kings and Stanley Cup champions, and I left and started this,” he winks, pulling on his old helmet and running to join his mates.
But somewhere along the line, Scott Crowder lost his love for the game, even while posting his best two seasons at UMASS. “Playing Division 1 hockey is like a job. It wore me out.” But he thrived in sports management, took his degree home, where the ice is, and tapped into his roots. He was soon shocked to learn how many hockey people have never played outside. The Pond Hockey Classic was born.
A marvel of orchestration. This thing is thwick/thwack reliable as tee times at the Masters. All games begin and end at the same time – 30 minutes of action with no stoppage of play. Three horn blasts signal the ending of one – a single honk five minutes later the start of another. Not there on time? You’ll be assessed a goal by the rink monitor for every minute late. Tell the rink monitor to take a flying eff? Ding! – there’s one more! A few rinks, on a rotating basis, are left vacant. Crews are out at the horn, steering power brooms like portable Zambonis, scraping surfaces to a scruffy sheen.
Oh, and in-game celebrations? Fuggetaboutit. Substitutions are on the fly, and we mean the FLY! If you do manage to slice one into that six-inch net, ‘YEAH!” is all you have time for – the clock does not stop – you’re on D! The only hi-fives are when you come off the ice. Whew!
From rink to rink one roams – the shouts, the grunts, the spray, the constant rumble of blades on ice. The blaring horn of victory. One of the biggest cheers rises from Rink 13, where a team of women, the “Red Hot Chili Puckers,” wearing helmets AND sombreros, dance and sing off the ice after beating the “Bitchin Babes” out of Center Harbor NH, for their first win of the weekend. “So much fun,” says leftwing Tracy Sutherland, whose team has played here nine straight years. “It’s our summer hockey team. One of our husbands did it the first year and we said, ‘why not us?’ So it’s like a little reunion – that’s true for a lot of teams. All of us are moms – we kinda leave the kids behind and get away.”
The “Bent Shafts” (don’t ask) is a scrappy Boston-based team of thirty-somethings, including Leeds natives Pat Flaherty and Matt and Ian Palmer and Mike Kosinski of Agawam. They call themselves an “expansion” team, the PHC having added eight rinks this year, while still forced to turn away 100 teams. Jake LeBlanc, Mike Morancy, John Pettoruto and Nick Palmisano round out the roster. Seven of them are not related to me. But Annemarie and I holler them on like we’d raised them all. I mean, Pat and Ian won the GSL championship together as teens, so he’s practically related.
(The Palmers didn’t play too often with us at the Muck Hole because they had their own rink in their backyard, not too different from the rinks at Meredith. “Twenty years of hard work,” says Ian, adding, “mostly by my parents.”)
The speed of the game they pick up quickly, but hitting those tiny nets with any accuracy is an art to be acquired. They drop their first game 12-6 to “Of Moose and Men” and their second to the “Ugly Pucklings” 9-6. But Big Mike Morancy, who grew up on the rugged rinks of Charlestown, had spent Friday at a friend’s funeral, arriving just in time to score the winning goal Saturday morning in the Shafts’ thrilling 11-10 victory over Boston’s “Punch List,” their first.
“The Shafts showed some moxie out there,” says Pat in his postgame voice. “Real proud of the boys and how they reacted after the 5,000 beers last night.” (Adult beverages are as integral to the PHC as athletic tape.) Says Big Mike: “There are things we could have done differently but we’ll take the win.”
The Bent boys pay the price, alas. Pat takes a puck off his left skate with a knock you could hear two rinks over. Breaks his damn toe. Matt hurts his head in a fall and has to pull himself out. The Shafts, subsequently shellacked by a twenty-something bunch called the “Dutchmen,” repair to the beer tent, their work here quite done, their strategy for next year already begun.