By David Bailey
MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - With team names like the Whiskey Bandits, the Spirit of '78, or The Pylons - a reference to the orange cones skaters weave around in practice - players at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Minnesota don't take themselves too seriously.
For many like Andy Kannenberg, the tournament that runs Friday to Sunday on a Minneapolis lake has become a driving force to connect with former teammates to reminisce and tell tall tales.
"We were all pretty good friends in college . but you drift apart after that many years," said Kannenberg, a Bemidji, Minnesota native, who organized the Spirit of '78 team to play in the over-50 division from friends who were recruited to play hockey at Princeton University.
"Getting this group of guys back together again, if you ask any one of the guys, this has been one of the coolest things that they have done in their lives," Kannenberg said.
About 270 teams and nearly 1,700 players are registered for the tournament, ranging from rink rats to former professionals arranged in several divisions. Players have registered from more than 40 states and several countries including Canada, Sweden and Latvia.
The free-wheeling games are played four-on-four without goalies, checking or whistles in a nod to the pickup games of childhood often played on flooded backyard rinks and ponds. Goals are scored into narrow slots on plywood and two-by-four nailed-together boxes. Players call penalties on themselves, and referees mostly just keep score.
Teams win only bragging rights, but it does get competitive, said Tim Olsen, who plays with the Whiskey Bandits, the defending champions in the open division who are former teammates from high school and junior hockey.
"You win, you get your name on a golden shovel, but that is not what it is really about," Olsen said. "The thing that I enjoy is getting together with people you played with who you haven't seen in years, reminiscing about the old days."
Practice is almost a four-letter word.
Kannenberg said at least three of the people on his six-man roster had not picked up their hockey equipment bags since the tournament last year.
"Practice session?" Olsen said, laughing. "The practice session is show up, make sure you are there on Friday."
FROM UNSEASONABLE WARMTH TO DEEP FREEZE
The tournament was first held in 2006 and acquired two years ago by TST Media, which runs it on a break-even basis and supports the Herb Brooks Foundation and the DinoMights, a hockey program for inner-city and underprivileged youth that is now raising money to replace a van that was stolen and vandalized.
After an unseasonably warm start, the winter weather turned frigid as if on cue for the tournament. Temperatures did not drop below zero for the first time this year until just before midnight on Wednesday in the Twin Cities -- on average the first sub-zero reading is December 9.
The forecast called for sub-zero morning temperatures to warm up to close to 10 degrees on Friday with 1 to 3 inches of snow possible. In other words, it was expected to be warmer than it was last year.
"The guys will play, given the option, in just about anything," said Justin Kaufenberg, CEO of TST Media, co-chairman of the tournament and a player. "There is not a buck on the line. There is not so much as a free puck unless you scoop one up when no one is looking."
There were 26 rinks laid out on Lake Nokomis for the event along with a massive tent on-shore that organizers call the world's largest locker room to house up to 2,000 players.
Kannenberg said his teammates were flying in from around the United States and Canada on Thursday for the tournament, while Al Qualiardi made the drive from Barrington, Illinois, to join up with an over-40 team called the Flatlanders that he had just signed up for as an independent.
"We have been looking at it a few years and decided to take this plunge," said Qualiardi, who was making his first trip to the tournament this year.
Danny Wiegand, captain of the Michigan-based Pylon team, was getting ready on Thursday for a 12-hour drive to Minnesota.
Wiegand, 22, said he was making his third trip to the tournament with friends who grew up playing hockey together on teams and on a lake north of Detroit but who now live spread out across Michigan. The Pylons play in the rink rat division.
"It takes you back to when you were a little kid," Wiegand said. "You get a bunch of guys together and you all shovel off the rink. It's not serious. It's competitive, but everyone realizes you are not playing for the Stanley Cup."
(Reporting By David Bailey; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)