Life is good when you can skate into the beer tent.
The tent sits on a frozen lake ringed by snow-covered pines in the tiny town of Plaster Rock in New Brunswick, Canada. Each February, a dozen of us travel hundreds of miles there to skate in the World Pond Hockey Championship.
I’ve been playing hockey for more than forty years, since my dad taught me to skate on the outdoor rink at RougePark in Detroit. With my snowshoe speed and stone hands, I’ve never been much of a player. But if love of playing was all that counted, my name would be etched on the Stanley Cup.
Living in Chicago, a superb hockey town, I play from January through December. But the highlight of the year is the pond tournament. The hockey, played on more than twenty rinks carved out of RoulstonLake, takes all of us back to our childhood. Four-man teams. Wool caps instead of helmets. No goalies, no referees, nets just a foot high. You sweat and you curse and you gasp for breath and then you shake hands beneath the starry sky.
I love the Frisbee-sized omelets at the Settlers Inn. And the public-address announcer exhorting us to get our tickets to the Saturday night dance. And the new indoor rink that Plaster Rock built with proceeds from the pond tournament. Most of all, I love the people of this struggling mill town, for opening their arms to hundreds of strangers who share the love of a simple game.
Then there’s that beer tent. After a day on the ice, we retire there for a few cold ones with skaters from all over the world. As we tell our tales long into the night, we are all best friends. It doesn’t matter if you played in the National Hockey League or you can barely stand on skates. You are a hockey player. You belong.