Polar Pond Hockey back a sixth year

Players flock from all over the South Slave and northern Alberta to play on the multiple rinks built on the frozen Hay River in March. Photo courtesy of Jason Coakwell

Players flock from all over the South Slave and northern Alberta to play on the multiple rinks built on the frozen Hay River in March.
Photo courtesy of Jason Coakwell

Questions of cancelling Polar Pond Hockey prompted popular demand to encourage organizers to follow through on the tradition when they finally sat down around the table.

“It took two weeks before we could hold a real meeting,” said committee member Jason Coakwell. “And we all got so much flak from everyone, we just had to make it happen. The great thing is that people all jumped on board to help out.”

The four on four hockey game played without goalies has become an institution in Hay River in the five years since it started, drawing teams from all over the South Slave and northern Alberta for friendly competition on rinks built out on the river near Fisherman’s Wharf. This year’s event will take place Mar. 7 through 9. Originally, the organizers had been hesitant to plan the tournament for so close to the Arctic Winter Games later in the month, but in the end decided it was worth the risk.

“We knew that if we put it on, we would have to live up to what it has been in past years,” he said. “We thought we would be a little light on volunteers and it would affect how many teams we could get into town.”

Coakwell also noted that not only was “new blood” needed for volunteers, the organizers are always looking for people with specific skills. The massive heated tent needs to be set up and local plumbers electricians need to make sure it not only works, but also remains safe. Last year, the three-day event brought more than 40 teams of five players, along with local spectators plus family and friends. The tournament has become just as much a social gathering as a sports event.

“Running a dance on the ice surface on the river is maybe one of the crazier things we do,” joked Coakwell.

In the past, the tournament has raised money for various causes – including to support local Olympian Brendan Green in his ongoing athletic efforts. This year, money raised will go to renovate the Don Stewart Recreation Centre. Pond Hockey has also evolved into a venue for other non-profit and community groups to run fundraisers, like the grad committee’s shuttle service from town. Coakwell said it remains important to include as many groups as possible in order to spread the fundraising opportunities, but also the labour.

Shelley Maher, player for the Women’s Hazard Hockey team in Hay River said the first Polar Pond Hockey tournament was both the time she felt the most pain as a result of thawing out her frozen feet and the time she had laughed the most in one day.

“Some of the best moments have been seeing the teams that show up in costumes,” she said. “I remember some ladies skating around trying to play hockey in their giant penguin costumes – totally hilarious!”

Both Maher and Coakwell noted that the tournament is just as much an opportunity for families in the community to come out and have fun as it is a competitive event for players.

“Of course, there’s some friendly rivalries,” said Coakwell, whose own team came in second in the finals last year. “But it’s not about coming out and beating the other guy. It’s all for fun.”

This year, Coakwell hopes the tournament will grow once again, as it has in the past, and finally reach 50 teams. He said the organizers would like to see Pond Hockey develop into more of a territorial event and draw crowds from Alberta as well.

“We’ve tapped out all the hockey players in Hay River,” he said. “They’re all playing already, so growth needs to come with teams coming in from the outside. I think every team that has come in has come back the next year, so that’s a great sign. We just want them to maybe bring a second team from their community too.”

While no doubt an excellent opportunity to draw crowds to Hay River for a weekend, as well as send winning teams to the World Pond Hockey Championship in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, for the players, it’s all about having a good time.

“Pond Hockey has become a tradition for myself and some of my closest friends,” said Maher. “We have absolutely precious and puckin’ cold memories from this event.”

-Sarah Ladik