For anyone that doesn't know, Minnesota is called the "State of Hockey" and has earned that title by hosting some amazing high school hockey tournaments and breeding some fantastic hockey players in the NHL. A recent stat showed that 37 Minnesotans have played a game in the NHL this season, that's more than any other state in the US. When you add in the fact that pond hockey is played here religiously (myself being someone that partakes in this holiest religion) it's easy to see that this state is hockey crazy. I absolutely love how enamored this state is when it comes to the sport.
When talking to the players, especially ones from the Upper Midwest and the Northeast, if you mention pond hockey to them you'll more than likely see their face light up with memories of playing outdoors with their friends; the laughter and chirping of one another filling the air. Sometimes they reminisce about the days spent alone on the ice. The absolute quiet and peace you get from the frigid days spent outside, the only noise coming from the howl of the wind, their stick controlling the puck, and their skates creating new cuts in the ice. No matter how cliche it sounds, to me there's only one word to describe the feeling of playing hockey outside: Pure.
Every January, the US Pond Hockey Championships invade Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, MN and people from all over the US (even people from Canada!) converge to this spot for a weekend of beer, hockey, and fun. A modern spin on pond hockey, the event features 25 separate rinks complete with boards and pre determined teams but still holds true to some of its roots. For example, the game stills features no offsides, no slapshots and only the simplest of goals for players to score on. After a game ends, teams are tasked to shovel the rink to help clear off the debris that remains as the only evidence of the previous struggle that took place. The rules are simplified and relaxed, although no checking is enforced but that's no guarantee for preventing heated battles. Speed and puck handling are key skills to have on the ice as crisp passing isn't a sure thing as the cracks from previous players still exist as the ice isn't resurfaced. A casual player truly appreciates the comforts indoor rinks provide as many of these luxuries aren't available. Although the game is 4 on 4, the defending team sometimes has a 5th teammate in the ice by causing the attacking team to catch an edge or to make the puck bounce funny in their favor. Like any sport, hockey has its ebbs and flow but with pond hockey, nature can have its way with the outcome of the game.
As much as I love hockey, taking photographs of the sport was a very foreign concept to me but the saying about sports photography still rings true. The better you know the sport, the easier it is to shoot. Watching and playing thankfully granted me the ability to predict plays being made and made it easier for me to track where the play was going. You also realize that no matter how different sports are, the basic rules of photography still apply. The only thing I was really battling was the reflection off the ice making my exposures go crazy. Very thankful that I was bundled up from head to toe because it would've been easy to get a sunburn with how harsh the light was every day. I really wish I had a fisheye to capture just how big this event was (thanks for convincing me not to rent one, Steph) because a 16-35mm wasn't even wide enough to get everything in one shot. Panoramic photos aren't something I've done and I didn't want to spend the time messing around trying to get one down, so we'll chalk this one up as a missed opportunity. In true David Berding fashion, I'm sure this will come back to bite me in the ***. As a Cubs/Twins/Insert-not-a-very-good-team-here fan, I'll say "There's always next year!" so that I don't feel as bad about it.
When I got to the event on Saturday, I was greeted by a sea of people in the warming tent gearing up or down, talking about their games and enjoying the company of one another. The great thing about this event is that it has potential build friendships and creates new ones, I was even able to meet a few new people to connect and network with. When I made my way to the rinks in the morning, I wasn't entirely sure of what I was going to see but I was greeted very quickly with some hard competition (saw a couple fights happen, more on that later) and very skilled players. The general consensus when you're playing outdoors is that the game is lighthearted but that all changes when people travel from out of state and pay entry to the event. There wasn't a shortage of a competitive drive in people and it showed in the photos I was able to get!
Like any sport, you always run into hockey players that think they're one step away from the NHL and that always brings drama. Usually they're overweight, 20+ and have feet for hands when they get the puck. USPHC has a handful of ex D1 and NHL players competing, but normally the beer league heroes on the ice are the ones I described. I fit the criteria listed and normally try to play aggressive but I can turn it off like a switch when I want to play relaxed or if I'm with some friends. While there's nothing wrong with being a fierce competitor, I think there's a fine line between that and being a you know what on the ice. At the end of the day, it's pond hockey and should be fun. After this weekend I believe my fight count was at a solid two that I witnessed and there were at least two more fights that I knew of. The first one happened during the game in the photo above which I wasn't able to get because it was over as fast as it started and there was a crowd of people in the way. The second one I saw was between a guy that looked like a caveman and someone that was about 2 feet shorter than them which ended up clearing the benches. Just my luck, it was at the other end of the ice so nothing came of it.
On a happier note, it was really cool to see the USPHC play host to sled hockey players from Minnesota. Sled hockey is a sport that allows physically disabled people to enjoy the sport and is currently one of the more popular winter sports competed for in the Paralympic Games. I'd like to extend a thank you to Sweden for creating another way for people to be involved as players, it was a great thing to see. The parents of the youth players have every right to be proud, there was a lot of drive in their kids with a will to never quit on the ice as well as outstanding sportsmanship among their teammates and with their opponents. I hope this becomes an annual thing for the USPHC because it's an amazing opportunity for those involved.
More photos from Saturday's competition
Maybe it's just me but I think it's sad how little attention the women's play will get. Granted, it's a small division with 8 teams but these women have some amazing talent on the ice and I think it's worth their championship game getting put on one of the main rinks towards the front instead of getting pushed near the back. The 50+ division had less teams and garnered more attention at the event, think about that. While it was a fast paced and entertaining game, these women can still skate, dangle, and make plays that I think the casual bystander would find interesting. Anyone who claims women's sports are boring haven't watched them play hockey because it's still just as intense. Regardless of this, these women went on without complaint and played some great hockey which lead to some outstanding material I was able to get. My only regret is that I didn't pay closer attention to the schedule to catch more of their games.
Sunday in paintball is always reserved for playoffs/finals and is what you strive for every weekend. Among players, it's called Sunday Club to acknowledge the fact that you're part of the elite group that was able to separate itself from the rest of the fodder. The USPHC was no different with their Sunday Club, bringing the best teams to the table to duke it out for the coveted Golden Shovel or Silver Scoop. I'll be the first to admit that I like photographing players that are higher skilled because they just help make a photo look great. It doesn't matter to me if society thinks you're handsome or woof, the only thing I care about are whether your skills are beautiful because I can work with that. There was plenty of that to be found over the weekend, but Sunday really brought out the best in players on account of it being playoffs. Everyone plays to the best of their abilities and pushes themselves to a level that puts their team in the best position to win. The Sunday Club gave me exactly what I wanted.
I love hockey and everything it has given me. The friendships, the laughs, the pure elation that comes from winning, and the heartbreak that comes with losing (even if it is pick up) will always be memories I cherish. I look forward to lacing up my skates and stepping on that cold, hard surface to create those fresh cuts and to create new memories. Maybe it's because I've been trying to turn over a new leaf and view things in a positive light, but no matter what happens, I always try to tell myself that there's never a bad day in hockey for me. I'm always anxious to get back out there for my next shift because I never know when my last one is going to be so I want to try to make the most of it while I can. It's no coincidence that my passion for this sport finally met my love for photography as they're both relative to one another as far as my feelings towards them. I'm excited to find out what 2014 and beyond will bring with photography and with the ice.
Gear used (special thanks to my buddy Chris):
70-200mm f/2.8L IS