There’s something about a sheet of lumpy, gouged pond ice and a nasty wind chill that makes Ken Wengert want to don his old skates and smack a puck between snow-boot goal posts.
“It’s about dealing with anything Mother Nature dishes out,” he said.
He and five of his buddies, all from around Saratoga Springs, are devoted pond hockey players. At the end of this month, they’ll head to the mecca of pond hockey, the annual CAN/AM tournament in Lake Placid, under the team name “Toga Chiefs.”
Pond hockey is much different from the game you see on TV, Wengert said. There’s no goalie, no actual goal and no boards. The games are played four on four — two fewer players per side than in conventional hockey. And obviously, it’s played outside.
It’s the setting, the pond, that seems to change the attitude of the game. Wengert had to dig back to his hockey-centric youth in Clinton, near Utica, to describe the divide.
“I played on rinks in some youth leagues,” he said, “but to practice, we’d clear off lakes or creeks, basically any frozen water, and play.”
He recounted one stream behind his house that never quite froze over. A section of strong current came right to the surface, but a little open water didn’t stop the game.
“I remember chasing the puck right up to the edge of the ice and fishing it out of the water,” he said. “Looking back, we probably should have just let the $2 puck go.”
That was good training for the risk assessment expert for an insurance company who is very aware of the tenuous strength of thin river ice.
As he graduated to college hockey, the game became more competitive and moved to indoor, year-round rinks. But the smooth ice and conspicuous lack of wind must not have satisfied him, because as a responsible adult, Wengert went back to the childhood pond.
“For most of us, it’s going back to our roots,” he said. “It’s not so competitive. It’s about camaraderie.”
Greg Comora, another Toga Chief, put it a different way: “We all have to go to work in the morning, so there’s not as much contact.”
Growing up on Lake George, hockey was Comora’s winter pastime. Now, he owns an industrial lighting company. It’s not a fantastically exciting or physical job. Neither is Wengert’s position at the insurance company.
“We’ve also got three software guys and a city employee,” Comora said.
Even Sergei Morgoslepov, a Russian who Wengert praises for his quick, European style of skating and expert puck handling, is an information technology specialist. But these upstanding professionals shed a few decades when they hit the pond.
“I’m just a grinder,” Wengert said. “I’ll come out with the puck, let’s put it that way.”
This year will be their fourth at the CAN/AM pond tournament. The first time, they left after four straight losses.
“We learned a lot that first year,” Comora said.
The next time, they won two games, and last year, the Toga Chiefs took second place in the 30-plus age bracket.
“We’re hoping for the gold this time,” he said, adding that before the tournament, his team will be practicing on a section of Round Lake.
According to CAN/AM organizer Cliff Brown, the Toga Chiefs are far from the only ones happy to do some shoveling before lacing up the skates. The event has grown in each of its seven years. This year, 60 teams are signed up from Canada and 15 different U.S. states as far away as Texas and California.
“Remember as a kid, you’d use any thing to mark the goal — boots, anything,” he said. “I think people must want to get back to that.”
The tournament doesn’t actually use boots as goal posts — they have six-foot boxes, 10 inches high, to catch scoring pucks — but aside from that, it’s basically pond rules.
“We have a few select guidelines,” he said, “basically whoever hit the puck over the snowbank, it’s the other team’s puck.”
Also, for legal reasons, players must wear helmets, but other padding is optional.
On Jan. 25 and 26, each team will play two games. On Jan. 27, the best four teams in each age bracket will play for the top prize. Though the Toga Chiefs are hoping to bump up last year’s silver into nice shiny gold, Wengert said it’s probably not that likely. He talked of a Canadian team beating a group from Buffalo by 40.
So it’s good to remember that pond hockey is about camaraderie.