Despite what you heard from the suits who performed the last rites on the NHL season, hockey was alive and well last weekend. Frostbitten and runny-nosed, perhaps, but alive and well. "When it comes down to it, this is what hockey is," Ashley Buckle, a 27-year-old physiotherapist from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, said on Friday, shortly after he and his brother, father and brother-in-law--the Newfoundland Islanders--finished their first match at the fourth annual World Pond Hockey Championships in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick. "They say they stopped hockey, but the NHL is only one small part of what hockey is to us in Canada."
The shinny smackdown on frozen Roulston Lake began in 2002 as a small-town ode to the Great White North's national pastime, but it's become an international event. This year 96 four-man teams--including entrants from the hockey hotbeds of Texas, London ( England, not Ontario) and the Cayman Islands--descended on Plaster Rock (pop. 1,200) for the three-day tournament held on 24 rinks carved in the ice.
A wooden replica of the Stanley Cup was at stake, but the similarities between pond hockey and the stultifying version of the game the pros too often play end there. Indeed, the event is more about the participants' recapturing their youth than mimicking the NHL. The four-on-four games were played without goalies and under strict "no-lifties" rules. (The puck can't rise above the 10-inch-high nets.) Checking was rare, the neutral-zone trap was nonexistent, and a skate-in, skate-out beer tent awaited players killing time between matches. "It's just good old-time hockey, gentleman's rules, like when we were kids," said Steve DiPaolo, 26, from Quispamsis, New Brunswick, who was playing in his third championships. "There's nothing like it."
This year's tournament ended on Sunday as last year's did: with the Boston Danglers, four thirtysomething Canadian expats, hoisting the wooden Cup. As a well-bundled crowd of a few hundred watched from snowbanks (game-time temperature: -11?F), the Danglers beat the Stately Elms Fallen Leafs of Fredericton, New Brunswick, 14-8. "I'm a little disappointed it's over, though," said Dangler Rob Atkinson, a sales rep born in Moncton, New Brunswick, who lives in Franklin, Mass. "When you're with your buddies, playing hockey like this, you have a good time." -- S.C.