A hockey purist's dream
Pond players and rink rats come together in N.H. for a winter classic of their own
Stop by any pond hockey tournament, and you'll witness a frosty tableau of giddy, puck-loving weekend warriors reliving glory days, enjoying the great outdoors and knocking back a few carbonated beverages. Draw composite pictures of those players, and the images would break into two distinct camps. First is the grizzled 35-year-old or 40-plus hockey veteran, who grew up on the ponds, with a quaint beer belly stretching his jersey but still with good wheels and a good idea of how to use them. The second is the under-30 player raised on indoor ice, drawn more by the sheer novelty of the event.
That's what roughly 500 participants and another 1,500 or so spectators found on the seven "rinks" that dotted New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee during the inaugural New England Pond Hockey Championships on a sun-splattered weekend last winter. At the center of this perfect pond hockey storm, corralling these two disparate groups, was a 24-year-old University of Massachusetts graduate, Scott Crowder.
"We had guys who played for Stanley Cups and we had guys who didn't even play high school hockey," Crowder said. "I think the common theme is getting together with four or five or six buddies, coming up and having a weekend, playing a little pond hockey, drinking some beers and having some laughs with some friends.
"People are still talking about last year and the experiences they had last year. That's something I want to capture."
What Crowder captured was the imaginations of hockey players from coast-to-coast. Though the majority of the participants in the inaugural Pond Hockey Classic came from Greater Boston and Southern New Hampshire, Crowder said he also had teams from Chicago, Colorado, California, Utah and all along the Eastern Seaboard from as far as Florida. The event was such a success that this past fall Crowder received the Lakes Region Association's Tourism Award, recognizing "an individual or business that has made a difference during the past year to bring visitors into the Lakes Region and Central New Hampshire."
"There were two reasons I wanted to do the tournament," Crowder said. "One was to give the hockey community of the region a big-time pond hockey tournament to call their own. Plus, I also wanted to bring people into the Lakes Region in the winter time, because I know those businesses could definitely use it, and it worked out."
Turns out, Crowder was the right guy to bring everyone together, even if he's half the age (or less) than many of the participants. Most players, frankly, resemble his father. Bruce Crowder is a University of New Hampshire graduate who played 248 regular-season and playoff games for the Boston Bruins from 1981 to 1984 (51 goals, 48 assists, 99 points) before embarking on a college coaching career that included three seasons at the helm of UMass-Lowell and nine as Northeastern's bench boss. But the elder Crowder knew his youngest son, a sports management major at UMass, had the right mix of entrepreneurial spirit and sweat equity to make the Pond Hockey Classic a winner.
"He's not married, he doesn't have any commitments, he doesn't have a mortgage, so he could be a little carefree," Bruce Crowder said of his son. "But the thing that really worked for him is that he's a kid who thinks outside the box."
In 16 months, Scott Crowder has laid claim to the title of New England's Pond Hockey Impresario. This year, he and his event staff -- consisting of sports management interns from Southern New Hampshire University and Plymouth State College -- will be running three tournaments over the first three weekends in February, starting with the 2nd annual New England Pond Hockey Classic in Meredith, N.H., on Feb. 4-6.
The following weekend, on Feb. 12, Crowder is running the one-day, 32-team Monarchs Pond Hockey Classic at Dorr's Pond in Manchester, N.H., on behalf of the Los Angeles Kings' AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs. Then, Feb. 18-20, Crowder is hosting the Lake Champlain Pond Hockey Classic in Burlington, Vt., which can handle upward of 70 teams.
All the games feature teams playing 4-on-4 in two 15-minute running time halves with no nets and no goaltenders. The target is actually two mini-goals, each with a 6-by-12 inch opening, connected by an 18-inch pipe. Last year, Crowder used wooden boxes with roughly the same dimensions, but the tournament proved so popular that he had to buy the pre-fabricated goals produced by Nice Rink.
"I'm extremely passionate about the sport of hockey, and I love hockey in the pure forms," Crowder said. "Sometimes the game gets carried away; it's become a circus at all levels. [The outdoor game is] how a lot of people played growing up. When you see the passion that these guys have when they're out there -- there's no structure, there's no whistles, there's no horns, there's no time -- this is just pure. It's raw."
Last year's inaugural event on Lake Winnipesaukee was an unqualified success, exceeding all of Crowder's expectations. Crowder brought in 77 teams and could have had more than 100. He also got lucky with the weather, as Mother Nature delivered an ideal winter weekend.
"Last year, we proved ourselves. This year we can't have a sophomore slump," he says. "I could grow it to 250 this year, if I wanted to. But I'd rather have 150 teams leaving saying they had a great time, instead of 250 saying that we sold out, or that it was shoddy."
This year's New England Pond Hockey Classic sold out last June, and as of the second weekend in January Crowder had a wait list of some 90 teams. That makes sense. He has a terrific location and the perfect commodity -- one that attracts old and young. For the over-40 beer-leaguer, it's the nostalgia. For those younger than 40, who grew up playing indoors on the pristine sheets, it's the originality of outdoor ice.
"Even when I coached at Northeastern or UMass-Lowell, I'd try to get my teams to go out and skate on the ponds," Bruce Crowder said. "One year, we took all the kids down to the Frog Pond in Boston. It was a Sunday and we did the whole skates-over-the-sticks thing. They put four teams together and we had little games going, but I was amazed at the number of kids who came up to me and said, 'Coach, thanks. I'd never skated outside before.'"
However, Bruce Crowder's son wasn't one of those kids. Scott Crowder was a rink rat, but he was also a pond rat. Any sheet of ice was a good reason to lace up the skates. Crowder grew up in Nashua, N.H., and was always looking for friends to skate with, inside or out.
"My best friend had a house in Windham [N.H.], and his dad built a phenomenal backyard rink," Scott Crowder said. "We'd go right from hockey practice in high school to the backyard rink and we'd play into the night. He had lights and music; he had heaters; a bonfire pit. It was heaven. We'd be out there cleaning it off before the first snowflake hit."
That high school buddy, Chris MacPhee, is still one of Crowder's closest friends.
"Scott was the kid always trying to make stuff happen, even on the weekends during the hockey season," said the 24-year-old MacPhee, who played at St. Anselm College in Manchester. "There was this park in Nashua, called Roby Park, and they had a little skating rink, and Scott was always trying to organize pond hockey games there.
"And then I had a rink in my backyard. And even though it was my rink, Scott was always trying to get kids to come over there and play."
Crowder's dad sees a direct lineage between his son's early pickup skates and his role today as a tournament coordinator.
"He was always the kid who was organizing the street hockey game and calling people to play roller hockey, like it was when I was growing up, neighborhood kids getting together," Bruce Crowder said. "Now, they don't do that.
"In general, how many kids do you just see outside, period? Whether they get five kids together to play soccer or hoops, you just don't see that stuff anymore. It's part of the environment we live in, where parents say, 'I can't let Johnny outside, somebody might abduct him,' or something crazy thing like that. We were never that way. I think that's why he gets the flavor of both groups."
The Pond Hockey Classic relies on a simple formula: Get a decent sheet of ice and a bunch of guys together, and drop the puck. The concept is so simple, Scott Crowder said that many would-be entrepreneurs have told him they had the same idea.
"And I tell them, 'That's great, but I'm the one doing it,'" he said.
The idea took shape in the summer of 2009, when the newly minted graduate was working on the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee ferrying visitors around the lake or giving water skiing and wake boarding lessons. However, the weather didn't always cooperate that summer, giving Crowder plenty of down time to consider other ventures.
"I was just thinking, it'd be really neat if there was a pond hockey tournament here," Crowder said. "The lake freezes solid; the town has hotels and restaurants; people know the area; it's close to Boston. I had no idea [it would be so successful], I didn't plan that. It was probably the first of July when the idea popped into my head & 'Why not here?'"
First, though, was the matter of a hockey career. After a solid, if unspectacular, four-year career with the Minutemen (6 goals, 14 assists, 20 points), Crowder earned a contract to play with the Stockton Thunder in California, so he went west. Crowder was released at the end of preseason, but Thunder coach Matt Thompson told him there might be a couple of teams on the East Coast interested in him.
"I said, 'Thanks but no thanks,'" Crowder said. "I was 24 years old and had a good education. I wanted to start my life, and I knew pro hockey wasn't going to hold much for me. So I ended up coming back from California on Oct. 15 and thought, 'OK, what am I doing now?'"
Crowder seized on his idea for a pond hockey tournament, even though he had only three months to put it together. Admittedly, he had a few key elements working in his favor right from the get-go. First, he would be dovetailing off the NHL's Winter Classic, which was set for Fenway Park, focusing even more local attention on the outdoor game. He's from a hockey family and was able to take advantage of the connections that he and his father had made over the years. Plus, he was familiar with Meredith and the Lakes Region, having visited since he was 8 years old and helping to build a family home on Bear Island during his teens.
"I called the town of Meredith, went to town meetings, met with town managers, met with the fire chief, the police chief, all those people from the town, and pretty much ran with it," he said. "I made a website; I sent out e-mail blasts. Really pounded the pavement trying to promote it. It was pretty grassroots."
All those things helped get Crowder's foot in the door, but it was his determination and willpower that pushed it open. He saw a classic win-win scenario, where summer-based businesses such as restaurants and hotels could get a mid-winter bump. It didn't hurt that he didn't know any better. Meredith, Crowder said, is a classic conservative New England town -- slow to embrace anything new.
"It was like pulling teeth working with the town of Meredith, trying to tell them I had the vision in my head what this was going to be," Crowder said. "It's a small town with a small-town mentality. They don't always like things that change their way of life.
"Now, the town is great. They're behind it. Like anything else, the first year, you have to prove yourself."
But not even Crowder could predict the response he got.
"By Thanksgiving he had 20 teams, and the next thing you know he's got 70, and he had to shut it off and wound up with a lot of people on a waiting list," said his father, chuckling. "He didn't want it to get too big the first year, just because he didn't know what he was doing."
Crowder still had to convince area merchants to buy into the concept, and it wasn't always an easy sell. He had lined up a major sponsor in Labatt Blue beer and had to lobby local taverns to stock up enough to keep hundreds of hockey players happy.
"The funny thing was, he was jumping through hoops, left and right, and the town of Meredith didn't know what to make of this 24-year-old kid saying he was going to do this and that," Bruce Crowder said. "When it was all said and done, by Monday of that weekend, he could have been mayor of Meredith. I lost count of the number of people who came up to me and said, 'There's never been anything like this in Meredith in the winter time, where we've had this type of excitement.'"
The response was nothing short of astounding. Teams rushed to sign up. There were old-timers from the over-50 league at Hockeytown in Saugus, Mass., to absolute beginners. Among the old guard were Bruce Crowder and his Essex 73's squad, named after his old junior team in Ontario.
"In the round-robin, we were 4-0, which wasn't bad for a bunch of over-50 guys playing in the over-30 division," Bruce Crowder said, laughing. "But we got our asses kicked in the playoffs and we were gone. We just got too cocky."
But the elder Crowder will be back, along with two former teammates traveling in for the tournament. So will everyone else, as Scott Crowder said the tournament is boasting a 100 percent return rate. Again, it speaks to the draw of hockey in its purest form -- the same hockey that Scott Crowder and MacPhee played as kids.
"It's sad, because there are so many rinks, and they're open summer and winter. It's crazy how many rinks there are now," MacPhee said. "People don't need to play on the ponds, which is too bad, because that's when it's really a lot of fun.
"You just go out there and have a good time. You can play until it gets dark out or until you get blisters or your hands get numb. It was a great thing. I think everyone felt a little nostalgic going out and playing at Meredith because it is a lost hobby."
Scott Crowder's father said he loves the nostalgia, too.
"The best thing about the tournament was watching the smiles on the guys' faces when they left the rink," Bruce Crowder said. "There was one competitive division that got a little crazy, but for the most part everybody was just having fun. Winning and losing wasn't the most important thing. It was just the camaraderie."
Expect more of the same this February.
"Scott started something special, there's no doubt about it," said MacPhee, who is returning to avenge his Winnipesaukee Whalers semifinal loss last year. "This is going to be huge. It's the weekend of the winter."