Despite the Detroit Red Wings not being at previous levels of glory right now, one thing that has not changed is the Metro Detroit area (and really the entire state of Michigan) can still legitimately be called Hockeytown.
At all levels of the game, from semi-pro to backyard league, this state’s residents love to strap on a pair of skates, battle on the ice and then have a drink together afterward. It’s part of our DNA.
The perfect venue for this type of Michigan fun is coming up from Feb. 14-17 in St. Ignace, when the Labatt Blue UP Pond Hockey Championship will be played.
Literally played on the frozen ice of the Great Lakes (on Moran Bay in Lake Huron), this is the largest adult pond hockey tournament in the state of Michigan, and draws more than 200 teams, men and women, of all ages and skill levels, for a long weekend of fun Up North.
“The best part is skating out on the lake. Most of us learned how to play hockey on lakes and ponds,” said Oakland County resident Chris Ponton, who will compete in the tournament with his Pelvic Thrust Hockey Club team. “You will not find a better backdrop anywhere.”
While some teams come to St. Ignace with more of a competitive edge than others, everyone enjoys having fun with friends, both on and off the ice, throughout the weekend.
The action takes place on thirty 75-foot by 150-foot rinks. Games are 4-on-4 hockey, with a no-goalie format and snow bank boards.
To keep things fair, there are divisions for each age level (21-and-over, 30-and-over, 45-and-over, 50-and-over), and also a novice division and a women’s division. Games begin Friday, at noon; and Saturday, at 9 a.m. The championship games will be played on Sunday.
“This year will be the most exciting Labatt Blue UP Pond Hockey Championship yet,” said Lauren Christopher, associate public relations manager, Labatt Blue. “In addition to ice cold Labatt Blue and game play right on Lake Huron, we will have brand-new fan experiences throughout the entire weekend.”
Doris Lives is a team hailing from Royal Oak, Commerce Township, Chicago, New Boston and Clarkston. It’s their third year competing in the event in St. Ignace. (Fun fact: One team member, Daniel Passino, was featured on “The Voice” singing competition in 2016)
Team member Bradley Passino said the team’s level of competitiveness depends on how the first game goes. “If we win, game on. If we lose, pull out the booze.”
“Everyone is out there to have a good time and compete in a sport we all know and love,” he added. “You meet some incredible people and create lifelong memories that make every iteration of this trip unique and special.”
He said that no matter what happens on the ice, everyone has fun afterward.
Off the ice, the event will also include a meet-and-greet on Thursday, with former Red Wings Darren McCarty and Craig Coxe.
Teams are heading Up North from all over the state of Michigan, from multiple other states, and there’s even a team traveling all the way from the Czech Republic, called the Czech Lions. They discovered the UP Pond Hockey Tournament through a Google search.
“We like hockey, fun and good beer. Who doesn’t?” said Czech Lions team member Jaroslav Brozka, 33. “The main reason we are coming is to enjoy the tournament, meet great people with the same interests from other countries, socialize and have fun. We aren’t coming to St. Ignace to win, but we would be glad if we are still playing on Sunday.”
Women love to play hockey too, and many of them are headed up to St. Ignace for the tournament.
In the women’s Division, “The Original 6 Pack” is a contender and features players from White Lake Township, Highland, Brighton and Detroit. The team names references the Original 6 hockey teams — Detroit , Toronto, Montreal, New York, Chicago, Boston.
Team member Dana Heika said her team has made it up to St. Ignace for the past decade and, “every year it just keeps getting better and better with more memories.”
“We all have been playing together in a women’s competitive hockey league for 14 years or so,” said Heika, a Highland Township resident. “With it being only 4-on-4 hockey with no goalie, rostering just the 6 of us is a perfect team. It’s been an amazing time each year and always look so forward to the next one!”
One team with several players from the Oakland County area is Hoof Hearted, who are playing in the tournament for the fifth time. Some members of the team have played hockey with each other for over 20 years.
Based on his experience up in St. Ignace in past years, Hoof Hearted team member Pat Coutts, 55, said, “The weather is often all over the place, so be ready to roll with the punches and bundle up. It is an awesome town and time and the town is very receptive.”
Ponton’s Pelvic Thrust Hockey Club are veterans of the St. Ignace tournament and returning this year for their 11th go-round, this time bringing two squads. The team members are from St. Clair Shores, Royal Oak, Oxford, Dearborn and Rochester Hills and are all 30 to 40 years old. Team members have a long history together, and used to play at St. Clair Shores Ice Arena. They have won the UP Pond Hockey Tournament once and made it to the final another time.
Their name was inspired by a note on a bar tab 9 years ago, and they are a regular attraction each year now, team member Chris Ponton said.
The Cake Eaters hail from St. Clair Shores, Brighton, Farmington Hills, Chesterfield Township and Beverly Hills. They have played in the UP Pond Hockey tournament for 11 years.
Michael Mlynarek, 34, of the Cake Eaters called the tournament a “wonderful weekend”.
His goal at the event: Eat, drink, be merry and try to win.