By Neale Gulley
BUFFALO, NY (Reuters) - An unusually mild winter in upstate New York forced hundreds of amateur ice hockey players in a yearly pond hockey tournament normally held on Buffalo's inner harbor to hit the pavement on Saturday.
With no ice on Lake Erie, organizers of the three-day outdoor hockey competition have turned to street hockey, requiring a ball instead of a puck and shoes instead of skates.
"I can't skate at all," said Brendan Biddlecom, an energy consultant from Buffalo who signed up after organizers announced the switch. "In fact, that's why I'm playing."
Biddlecom, 32, and teammate Daniel Regan, whose seven-man team, the Alabaster Hippos, was gearing up for the second day of competition on Saturday, both said nature's hangups hadn't iced their competitive spirits.
"I can perform pretty well in my sneakers," Biddlecom said, adding that he has played pickup street hockey since he was a child and still plays at a nearby church gymnasium.
For the past four years, up to 1,000 players and 124 teams from the United States and Canada have laced up their skates to play on ice typically more than a foot thick on the city's nearby Erie Basin Marina in one of the largest public hockey tournaments held annually in the Northeast, organizers said.
Faced with no ice, organizers of the scaled-back tournament were hosting games on eight rinks set up in portions of three large downtown parking lots -- with the unfrozen marina still gently lapping against the city's seawall in the distance.
A heated beer tent has been packed since Friday, and a big-screen TV was set up to broadcast professional hockey games.
More than half of the 144 teams registered for this year's tournament pulled out due to the weather. The street event has drawn 60 teams and 450 players.
Ironically, 18-degree temperatures and a light but steady snow was the backdrop for Saturday's decidedly landlocked event.
Ice, not a lack of it, created some trouble with the playing surfaces at the start of the tournament Friday, Biddlecom said.
"We were slipping and sliding quite a bit," he said.
But that hasn't often been the case this winter. Buffalo has registered a little more than 2 feet of snow this winter, about 3.6 feet less than normal. Temperatures have been about 8 degrees above normal for February, said Aaron Reynolds, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Water temperatures in Erie Basin Marina were still at least four degrees above the freezing mark on Saturday .
"People like it. I admittedly enjoy it a lot, but it's weird," said Regan, adding that the weather had also affected his snowplowing business.
Brett Carlsen, of Buffalo-based sponsor Labatt USA, said a dozen or so tournaments normally scheduled throughout the region had been canceled this year because of a lack of ice, and that the switch to street hockey was a creative first.
"We've been filling potholes instead of cracks in the ice," he said, adding that some upcoming tournaments may still be held.
"This definitely opens things up for us," Carlsen said, adding that interest in the event had prompted talk of possibly holding a warm-weather street hockey tournament next year.
On Friday, headlines were made when snow-making machines were brought in to make conditions suitable for a snowboarding event part of the normally snowbound city's Winter Fest events.
"It's been a bizarre year," Regan said.
(Editing by David Bailey and Cynthia Johnston)