Sled Kid Russell Romeo tries to edge out the Sudbury Bulldog at the goal during Shinny +35 action on the ice Friday morning during the New England Pond Hockey Classic. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MEREDITH — What happens when you give grown men and women the chance to relive one of their favorite childhood winter pastimes? You create an event that draws more than 2,000 people to Meredith for a weekend, many of them coming from hours away.
They come for the chance to spend a few days with friends, playing hockey in the fresh air and with the scenery of Lake Winnipesaukee surrounding them. And, for the people operating businesses in Meredith, the New England Pond Hockey Classic, now in its eighth year, provides a welcome explosion of business during a period when hotels, restaurants and bars would otherwise be dreaming of the busy summer season.
"Basically, it's the highlight of the winter, business-wise," said Steve Fields, owner of Flurries Surfside Burger Bar, located a stone's throw from Meredith Bay.
This will be the third winter that Fields has owned and operated the business, originally known as "Flurries." The first winter, he said, the Pond Hockey Tournament weekend was about double his usual weekend business. During last year's event, business spiked even higher, even though poor ice conditions last year pushed the event a mile away, to Lake Waukewan. On Thursday, Fields was preparing a slow-cooked beef stew as a special menu item for hockey players.
"We have some high hopes for the weekend – we have the beer stocked up, and plenty of burger," he said.
On Main Street, Frog Rock Tavern owner Dermot Moynihan said his business is "ridiculous" when the hockey players are in town. "I think it's incredible, every year. If weren't for that, this place would be so dead in February."
Moynihan said he is grateful to Scott Crowder, who conceived the event eight years ago and whose management of the tournament has grown it into an annual phenomenon for Meredith.
"He bolsters this town for a week, a month's worth of business for most people. It's awesome for the community. He does a great job."
The bigger Meredith hospitality businesses also see a boost from the tournament. Mill Falls at the Lake is a company that includes several high-profile lodging establishments, including Mill Falls, the Chase House, Bay Point and Church Landing. Joe Ouellette, director of sales and marketing, said that the event books up all of his company's rooms for the weekend, translating into 300 to 325 room nights over typical February bookings.
"That's a pretty big figure for this time of year," said Ouellette. "Just such a fun demographic as well... They visit our shops, dine in our restaurants and immerse themselves in the Meredith experience. We're happy to welcome them each and every year."
Crowder, son of former Boston Bruin and collegiate coach Bruce Crowder, started the tournament for the winter of 2010. From the beginning, excitement for such an event was apparent, with 77 teams signed up to play with their friends, in open air and on natural ice, the way most people first fell in love with the sport. Many more teams were left on the waiting list, while Crowder wanted to keep the size manageable for his first tournament.
Each year, Crowder has carefully expanded the number of teams he will allow to register. He is expecting 270 teams this year, with divisions for both men and women, and various age and ability levels. Those players seem to have a great time, judged both by their expressions on the ice and by the fact that, when he opens registration on Oct. 1 of each year, all spaces are filled by the end of that day, and he said that 95 percent of the registrants are for teams that played the prior year.
Each team plays two games on Friday and two games on Saturday. Those that win their games will advance to the elimination tournament on Sunday. Veterans of the tournament say that the weekend is as much about what happens between their games as during them. Crowder has cultivated a festival-like atmosphere on the ice, with food vendors, fire pits, live music and an on-the-ice bar.
Tom Boucher of Meredith missed the first year of the tournament but has played with his team, "Puck Nuts," every year since.
"It's just fun – everything about it's fun," he said. "The crowds, the people that come, the competition, the levels of competition."
Boucher said his team is in one of the "just for fun" divisions. "It's a whole weekend of hanging out with the buddies. Dinner at each other's houses, we just do a lot together as a team, we'll hang out on the ice all weekend."
As a boy, Chris MacPhee, who currently lives in South Boston, played a lot of pond hockey. He didn't realize how much fun it was, though, until he became an adult and could leave his stresses behind when he laced up his skates. A good friend of Crowder's, his team, "Winnipesaukee Whalers," has competed in every Pond Hockey Tournament since it was founded.
"I think it's one of those things, we all played when we were little. Now we're getting a little older... You just realize how much fun it is to be out there, hitting cracks on the ice, laughing and having a good time, then going inside and having a few beers," said MacPhee.
Lou Shipley of Andover, Massachusetts, will be playing with the "Andover Convalescents."
"We've got triple bypasses, knee replacements, hip replacements, ankle surgeries, you name it, we're all convalescents," he said.
All of the team members played competitively while in school, said Shipley, and continue to play in recreational leagues.
"But you're always indoors," he said. The open air, the possibility for snowflakes, imperfections in the natural ice, lends the tournament a special atmosphere.
"For me, it's like Christmas. It's the best time of year. You're there with friends, playing competitively, socializing in Meredith, it's a lot of fun," said Shipley, who has been part of the tournament since its inaugural season. Shipley works with high-tech startups, and in what Crowder has created, he sees a lot of the hallmarks of a successful entrepreneurship: bold decision-making, taking personal risk, hurdling over roadblocks, ability to do the hard work to bring a novel idea into reality.
"It's not just that he did it, it's how he did it," said Shipley. "(Crowder) created something from nothing. And when you're done, you don't just have a great company, you have a great culture."
By the end of the weekend, more than 600 games of hockey will have been played on Meredith Bay. After a day of action on Friday, games will be played throughout the day on Saturday. Elimination tournaments on Sunday will begin at 9:40, with the championship games scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Members of the public are welcome to spectate.
For details and specific schedules, see http://www.pondhockeyclassic.com/newengland.
The Irish Flu team from Franklin, MA were 0 for 2 on Friday but that didn’t dull their enthusiasm as they look forward to Saturday’s game against the Fat Pucks in the Twig Division during the New England Pond Hockey Classic on Meredith Bay. (Karen Bobotas/for the Laconia Daily Sun)