The State of Hockey’s beating heart, the vessel that can breathe life into the sport and its players during the dead of winter, flows outside in the cold and snow where shinny hockey (or pickup) games with friends and neighbors are played on the local outdoor rinks, ponds, and creeks that populate the state of Minnesota.
Outdoor hockey supplies a purity to the game of hockey that can’t be found in the manicured world of indoor arenas. Outside of the structure of practices, games, tournaments, and whistles, players of all abilities and levels receive a healthy dose of freedom and the time to play like, well, kids. Playing outdoor hockey with friends and neighbors is our frozen fountain of youth.
In celebration of Minnesota’s pond hockey season, Minnesota Hockey spoke with University of Minnesota Gopher hockey legend Pat Micheletti about the culture of outdoor hockey. Micheletti grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, and became one of the greatest Minnesota high school hockey players and Golden Gophers of all time.
“My linemates since Squirts were the Hooper twins (Gary and Greg Hooper). We were the best line in the state. Honestly, the three of us must have skated together on the outdoor ice every day. We’d skate outside from morning until night,” Micheletti said. “When we got cold we just went inside for a bit, warmed up, had some hot cocoa, and went right back onto the ice. That’s how you got better. That’s how I got better!”
The following is the code of pond hockey according to Micheletti:
Everyone Can Play
The NHL’s “Everyone Can Play” motto is one of inclusion. This acceptance of all genders, races, and backgrounds in the hockey community is one that mirrors the climate Micheletti experienced playing pond hockey in the Iron Range.
“When I was growing up in Hibbing, whoever showed up could play,” he said. “Whether we were playing a game or not, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl. It didn’t matter where you came from. We just divided the teams up and played.”
The traditional method for picking teams in an outdoor game is having all the players throw their sticks into a pile. Then, a chosen player makes the teams by randomly separating the sticks. The “sticks-in-the-middle” method of team selection is typically fair and balanced.
“You always knew who the good players were, and the older kids usually knew if teams were fair or not,” Micheletti said. “You try and make the teams as even as possible. But if a team got beat real bad we’d simply just pick new teams when the game was over. Because it’s no fun for kids to lose over and over.”
There is beauty in the simplicity of shinny hockey. It is literally and figuratively played outside of the confines of indoor hockey, and this can lead to a more relaxed, freestyle atmosphere. There are no officials, no game clock, and often times, no goalies.
“In shinny hockey, there are no real rules,” Micheletti said laughing. “No anything. No coaches. You just played!”
Because there aren’t traditional rules, outdoor hockey operates with a gentleman’s code of conduct. Whether it’s no checking, no lifting the puck, or whoever shoots the puck out of play goes to get it, players enforce certain unwritten rules and pass them onto younger players.
Players also get to choose any manner of scoring goals such as hitting the pipe of a net or using traditional pond hockey goals which are boards with two slots in the corners. If there aren’t any nets available, two boots on the ice may serve as goals. Or, maybe, there are no goals, and the game turns into keep away. Regardless of the format, the bottom line is kids rule!
The allure of playing outdoor puck for hockey players is that the games are unstructured and this means limited parental involvement. This sense of freedom can be great for older kids but it can occasionally be problematic for younger players who are nervous to join a game. But finding a safe and welcoming way to include young players into a game of shinny hockey is what keeps the game alive.
“In Hibbing, age didn’t matter,” Micheletti said. “When I was 7-8 years old and playing against 12-14 year olds it didn’t matter. You could always play. And we did the same thing for the younger players when we got older. I was a young kid once, too, you know. I remember playing with the older kids and what that felt like. So, we mixed the young kids with the older kids and found a balance.”
Micheletti believes that players of all ages and abilities should play pond hockey because they are simply afforded the freedom to experiment with their game. Improvisation in all its forms is welcome in the world of pond hockey: Players are encouraged to try new moves or dangles; they are encouraged to work on the tricky saucer pass; defensemen can play forward; goalies can play center. This will only help a player’s overall development and confidence.
“When hockey players skate outside they should try new things. They should try moves and dekes that they’d normally not try when they play inside,” Micheletti said. “It was this sense of creativity that allowed me to become a better player. You get all of your structure inside. But the good ones that made it were the ones that took the creativity from the outdoor rink and brought it indoors.”