EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — The sound of heavy machinery echoing through the crisp winter air is nothing unusual at the World Championship Derby Track, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of town.
What may be a little out of the ordinary is that those sounds were not the high-pitched roar of souped-up snowmobiles zipping around the oval track and on adjacent trails.
Instead, they came from a small army of plows, skid loaders and other heavy machinery moving mountains of snow around the sprawling grounds to make enough rinks to host the 260 teams for this weekend’s annual Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships.
For the second time in the 15-year history of the event, Mother Nature threw organizers a curve, forcing the event to relocate away from its typical picturesque setting on the shores of Dollar Lake to a more practical location on the other side of town.
But on the eve of the three-day event, the change can not damper the enthusiasm of the players as they streamed into town for an annual pilgrimage to Wisconsin’s north woods.
“The experience overrides the location,” said Ashley Bevan, senior director of adult hockey for USA Hockey. “We saw that in 2015 [the last time the event was moved off the lake]. Just being outdoors playing hockey with your buddies is an indescribable experience and overrides where it’s held.”
Within a matter of days, 24 makeshift ice rinks were scattered around the straightaways of the track as well as throughout adjacent parking lots, thanks to the around-the-clock efforts of the dedicated ice crew and the Eagle River Fire Department.
So far the weather has cooperated since the ice making began on Monday morning. According to local weather forecasts, temperatures should hover around 20 for the three days and dip as low as minus 8 at night.
The rinks were slightly smaller (100 feet by 50 feet) than those on the lake but the quality of the ice was noticeably better, after marathon sessions that went well past sunset.
One happy coincidence was the addition of lights, used to ensure that 467 games could be squeezed in over three days. That turned out to be a huge selling point as teams lobbied for games after dark.
“While some players may be disappointed that they’re not playing on Dollar Lake, a lot of them are excited about the chance to play under the lights,” said Paul DeSandro, a coordinator in the adult hockey department who is working his fifth pond hockey tournament.
None of that seemed to matter as teams streamed into town on Thursday. Organizers did what they could to make the team registration a festive event with bean bag games, free snacks and plenty of beer provided by the tournament sponsor, Labatt Blue.
“Things are coming along nicely even though we’ve had to change on the fly,” Bevan said. “We’ve never had to cancel this event in 15 years and we’re not interested in going down that road now. This may be an every-five-year scenario, but if that’s the case, we’re thankful that we have a good Plan B for this event.”