All professional sports are games for kids. Baseball players start on sandlots and little league fields, while basketball players are raised on blacktops and in gymnasiums. If players are good enough, they tend to move on to bigger arenas, make more money, and never look back. Hockey is a little different. At it's heart, it will always be an outdoor game. Even when it's played indoors, stepping into an ice rink from the cold doesn't exactly warm anybody up.
"It’s nippy," says Fred Haberman, creator of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, the yearly outdoor tournament celebrating its tenth year this weekend. It is, in fact, five degrees in Minnesota, that's a little colder than how Haberman describes it. It's also a heck of a lot colder than most ice rinks or arenas with a semi-competent heating system that keeps the place just cold enough so the ice is perfect. Minneapolis this time of year isn't exactly "nippy" to most people: it's a frozen hell. It looks nice, sure, but when the wind hits, the last place most people want to be is skating on ice.
But those people are the ones who probably didn't grow up chapping their hands tying skates up tight, and searching out the smoothest part of a body of water to play a game on. According to Haberman, who grew up in neighboring Wisconsin, he realized that there are two types of Minnesotans: "Because the winter is so long, you have a choice: you can either stay home on the couch and be miserable, or go out and embrace it."
Haberman loves hockey. He coaches a pee wee team, and lives and breathes the sport. The reason he created the tournament a decade ago, which lets anybody with the right equipment, and a willingness to shovel up the ice after their game, participate, is simple: "I wanted to continue being a kid."
That's really it. The U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, which features everybody from politicians to CEOs and "Joe Six-Pack" facing off against each other, has become a phenomenon based off that simple wish. What Haberman considers "a reunion with our youth," has grown into a massive tradition to not just the people of Minnesota, but hockey fans from all over the country who descend upon the Twin Cites just so they can freeze their butts off, try to score a few goals, and drink a few beers with strangers afterward.
"People are craving authenticity and purity today. And outdoor pond hockey represents that opportunity for people to experience it," Haberman says about the tournament's popularity, the likes of which couldn’t have escaped the NHL, who two years after the first Pond Hockey Championship, started their own outdoor Winter Classic. Haberman thinks what the pros are doing, but thinks if they wanted to do it right, they’d take a page out of his book: "They should have pros shoveling the ice instead of using a Zamboni."