THIS IS HOW hockey is.
Sixteen years ago, I was living in the Washington, D.C., area and playing in an invite-only pickup skate when I first heard about the World Pond Hockey championship in the tiny Canada town of Plaster Rock, New Brunswick. A friend who had attended the tournament sent me a T-shirt she’d bought there. I showed the shirt to my pal Tony Gray, who runs that pickup skate. He said, “Oh, we’re going to this.”
We signed up for the 2004 tournament, one of a handful of teams from the United States. We called ourselves the Y.A.N.K.S.: Your Average No-talent Knuckleheads from the South. Canada’s national weather channel sent a TV crew to interview us about how the soft Americans would deal with the biting maritime chill. F that, I thought, and wore shorts to the taping. The Canadians loved it.
That night, we played our first game under the lights on Roulston Lake. Our opponents were a bunch of Plaster Rock guys. The iced-over snow banks framing our rink were lined with locals rooting for the locals. They left disappointed. Later that night, our able adversaries from Toronto graciously introduced us to Fireball, which had yet to make its way to the USA. We skated to the beer tent, as happy as hockey players could be without winning the Stanley Cup.
That Sunday, on a brilliant, cloudless morning with the temperature at 10-below Fahrenheit, I watched one of the best hockey games I’ve ever seen. DC friends of ours, the Frozen Four, skated in the semifinal against the flashy Boston Danglers. Both teams were undefeated. My Labatt Blue had frozen into slush I squeezed from the can. The Danglers twice took five-goal leads, and twice our buddies came back to tie the score. With less than a minute to go, one of the Frozen Four hit a post with a deflection that would have put them ahead. The Danglers raced back down the ice to score the winner, 18–17. So crushed were the Frozen Four that they never returned to Plaster Rock.
But the YANKS had just gotten started.
IF THERE ARE FRIENDLIER people in the world than the ones in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, I would love to meet them.
They welcome you to the town of about 1,100 with a huge sculpture of two fiddleheads, indigenous plants that make a tasty sautee with butter. There’s a timber mill, a curling rink, a high school, a few restaurants, half a dozen churches, and the serpentine Tobique River, host to a floating summer festival called Fiddles on the Tobique. Settlers Inn, a cozy collection of cottages and motel rooms a five-minute walk from the frozen pond, is the Four Seasons of Plaster Rock. The YANKS were lucky enough our first year to rent a cabin at Settlers. We’ve called it home since.
In the 1990s, Plaster Rock faced a crisis only Canadians can truly appreciate: its indoor hockey rink was condemned. That arena, which I explored once before it was razed, was a classic old barn, as hockey people say. You could almost feel the booms of slapshots echoing in the rafters. Once the rink was shuttered, the youngsters of Plaster Rock had to travel many miles over snowy rural roads for practices and games in other towns. Their parents, casting about for ways to raise the money for a new rink, struck upon the idea of hosting a pond hockey tournament on the jewel of their community, Roulston Lake. Because there were few if any such events elsewhere, Plaster Rock had the delicious audacity to christen its event the “world” championship. Over the years, as copycat tournaments sprouted around North America, Plaster Rock remained the world championship. I love that.
More than 100 teams compete in a five-game round-robin: four-on-four, no goalies, nets six-foot-wide by 10-inches-tall (roofing one in these nets feels just as good as with regular ones, at least for me). The top 32 squads from the round-robin enter a single-elimination tournament on Sunday to determine the winner of the championship trophy, a shellacked wooden lookalike of Lord Stanley’s cup. There are no age or skill groupings because the point of the tournament isn’t the winning but the playing, the scrapping for the puck in the snow banks, the ass-over-tea-kettle flopping, the hapless toe-dragging, the ball-busting, the tale-telling, the returning to childhood, with beer.
In the early years, one highlight was the Saturday night dance. Hundreds of people converged on the high school gym to boogie to a live band and drink Crown-and-cokes in the school lobby. Afterward, if you were lucky, you were invited to Barbara and Derrick Kennedy’s house party down the street. My first year, I got a ride back to Settlers from a snowplow driver on her first run of the morning. My favorite Uber ever.
When I arrived back in DC after that first weekend, I wrote about my experience for The Wall Street Journal. The story went about as viral as a story could go pre-Twitter. The next year, Plaster Rock had to turn away 300 teams. Players ventured to New Brunswick from across North America as well as England, Poland, China, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Egypt (Canadian ex-pats), and the Cayman Islands (more ex-pats). At the dance that year, I stood sipping a cocktail with reporters from NBC, Sports Illustrated, and the New Yorker. Plaster Rock had vaulted onto the world hockey stage.
It took the town a few more years to achieve its ultimate goal. The YANKS sent letters to local politicians and newspapers urging the government to help Plaster Rock build the new arena. When the beautiful new Tobique-Plex opened, we were privileged to be part of an evening game there. It wasn’t much like the outdoor version, and it was odd not having snow banks to stow our sticks and flasks, but we had a good time anyway.
Achieving their goal did nothing to diminish Plaster Rockers’ enthusiasm for the annual pond event. The locals seemed to work harder each year to make one tournament better than the last. The actual Stanley Cup made an appearance, as did Wayne Gretzky and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. The beer tent became a structure of concrete and wood, with live music every night. This year, we’re being treated to a baked potato bar, because you can never get enough starch on a hockey weekend, right?
The work this endeavor takes is unfathomable. When I want to complain about the entire day it takes to get to Plaster Rock and the entire day it takes to get back, I think of those people toiling in a blustery polar freeze to tame the lake ice for hockey. Based on what I’ve heard from friends who’ve played in other tournaments, nobody does ice better than Plaster Rock. One year, rain fell as the temperature soared to 50 Fahrenheit. More than 100 games were canceled. When it turned frigid again that evening, 200 volunteers worked through the night. The next morning, the rinks shimmered smooth and silver in the sunlight, and I thought, these people are absolutely amazing.
ONE NIGHT IN THE BEER TENT, I met Jim Menno, aka Chico, a judge from Boston who skated for the Puckweisers. I asked about a patch stitched onto his black-and-gold jersey bearing the initials JEMF. Chico told me they memorialized a dear friend who had died young of a brain affliction. I realized he was describing a guy I’d skated with in DC some years before. “Was it Jimmy Farrell?” I said. It was. We toasted him.
The memory is indelible because that two-degrees-of-separation thing is, maybe more than anything, how hockey is. No matter where you skate, you will meet a guy or a gal who knows a guy or a gal you knew from back when. Just like that, you have a new best friend.
Take another of my beer tent BFFs, Brian Skrudland. Screwy came to Plaster Rock with buddies from Calgary and Stanley Cup rings from his time playing for the 1993 Montreal Canadiens and the 1999 Dallas Stars. “Can I see your rings, Mr. Skrudland?” somebody asked, and Screwy handed a ring over, saying, “Here, wear it a while.” His team never qualified for the Sunday playoff, but it did participate in an astounding 35–35 tie — 70 goals in a 30-minute game.
I’ll never forget one sunny Saturday afternoon. We were minutes from puck drop when public-address announcer Danny Maclean called for a moment of silence for our pal Gerry’s mother, who had died shortly before the tournament. I could see Gerry doubled over with emotion on the next rink. The quiet ended with the clicking of 250 stick blades tapping the ice in tribute. That’s how hockey is.
More than 30 players from the U.S. and Canada have worn the distinctive YANKS jersey, which is always emblazoned with a Canadian maple leaf as well as an American flag. We’ve brought as many as three different squads some years and been regulars in the Sunday elimination round, where twice our guys — and a woman — have reached the semifinals.
This week, we will make our final appearance in Plaster Rock. Some smart alecks might sneer because, like Gordie Howe, we have declared more than once that we are retiring (our jerseys this year are inscribed, “That’s all she wrote” — just like last year’s jerseys). But I’m pretty sure that my 61-year-old joints are done playing in 20-below (without wind chill) and that Tony, our de facto CEO, is done with the 3,000 emails and texts required each year to herd the cats to Canada. Then again, as my fellow YANK Sherm says, “We’re never going back until we go back.”
In case we don’t go back next year, I want to say this on behalf of all the YANKS to our friends in Plaster Rock: Thank you for your tireless, smiling work, for the way the rinks gleam in the night lights, for the brats and hot dogs and burgers and beers, for the little kids chasing errant pucks, for your hugs and warmth and laughter. You honor yourselves, you honor your town, you honor your country, you honor the game we love — not just for those of us who’ve been blessed to skate amid the snow-feathered pines of Roulston Lake, but every one of us around the globe. You are hockey.