There’s no place like the pond. The homemade backyard rink with floodlights. The meticulously shoveled sheet on the lake. The public park. And toasty warming houses with fresh hot cocoa.
It’s that wonderful time of year in the State of (Outdoor) Hockey. A rite of passage for most of us Minnesotans, whether you’ve never play an organized game of hockey in your life, or you play for the Minnesota Wild, like Eden Prairie’s Nick Seeler and Bloomington’s Zach Parise.
The pond is where the heart is.
“Countless hours on the pond and in the backyard,” Seeler recalled. “We had a couple houses in our neighborhood we'd go to. We had a lake in the backyard so we'd go on that – me, my dad and sister. Or we’d go on the sport court if we flood it.”
“We had a pond my dad would shovel off and that's where we skated,” said Parise, who now returns the favor for Jax, his 5-year-old son. “Jax plays outdoor hockey all the time. He loves it. Our neighbors have a rink in their front yard so he goes out there and skates all the time. That’s how every kid grows up here. I'm glad he gets that opportunity to do that and skate outside and kind of be brought up the way I was. The best part is seeing how much he likes it. He's asking to do it. He wants to be out there to do it, so that makes it fun for me. I just like that he enjoys it.”
It is unstructured hockey, there are some unwritten rules for the pond to make sure everyone’s safe and having a blast.
No slap shots. If it’s just a casual shoot-around, fine. Work on the clapper. But absolutely no slap shots during pickup games on the pond. It needlessly increases the risk of injury.
Sticks in the middle. No matter who you know or who you showed up with, throw those sticks in the middle and draw teams the old-fashioned way. Once that game has concluded, reshuffle and restart. You’ll win some and you’ll lose some.
Include everyone. No matter the age or skill level, everyone is welcome on the pond. Mites, old-timers, beginners and casual rec skaters may not set you up with perfect sauce or play the tightest D, but including them is important. Pass them the puck, be encouraging.
You shoot it, you get it. Whether you’re at a park rink with boards, a backyard pond, or one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, the puck will inevitably leave the area. Whoever fired it out of play has to go get it.
Sticks down, head up. It may be called shinny, but that’s not because of the equipment. Avoid taking shots through traffic if people aren’t wearing shin pads, and keep those sticks down and out of people’s faces. Nobody needs to get hurt out there with a wild stick or unnecessary shots.
Grab a shovel. Outdoor hockey in Minnesota is heavily reliant on volunteers. That means everybody that’s able should pitch in. If the ice is snowy, grab a shovel. If there’s a flooding schedule that needs names, sign up.
Don’t be a cherry-picker. Pond hockey games aren’t known for stellar defense, but don’t leave your teammates completely hanging either. Nobody likes a cherry-picker.
Be creative. Backhand toe-drag? Around the world? Fake drop and drag between the legs? No-look pass? Try those moves out on the pond – and be prepared for a chirp and a howl when you succeed and fail.
“Sure, I was trying everything,” Parise said. “I was probably driving my dad nuts trying all these fancy things. Anything we saw, we were trying.
“I think that's the best thing. That's where you learn how to play. You're learning to be creative. You're not dumping the puck in. You're not worried about anything. You're just having fun and without even thinking about it. You're working on your skills.”
Outdoor hockey can revitalize and refresh a player’s love of the game.
“It's great to get together with your buddies and play shinny hockey and have some fun,” Seeler said. “It's important as a kid growing up and having that dynamic in your game and not always just going to practice and having team games. It's being able to play with your buddies and have some fun.”
It’s a key part of our culture to pass on to future generations.
“Just the sounds of the puck hitting those wooden boards outside, you know what I mean? That's what we did,” said Parise. “We've got a park right by our house now where Jax and I will go skate – it's full circle. It's how I was raised and I loved it and he loves it too.”