EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — Jenn Olson seamlessly slides from one group of tables to another. She’s fielding questions from players, helping volunteers get to where they’re supposed to be and handing out cold beverages.
The Eagle River, Wisconsin, native does it all.
Working her 10th USA Hockey/Labatt Blue Pond Hockey National Championships, Olson knows exactly what needs to be taken care of during the three-day tournament. It’s almost second nature to her.
Olson oversees over 30 local volunteers who help out each year with USA Hockey’s largest adult hockey event. She helped score games in 2012, her first year working the tournament. She’s moved up the ladder ever since.
“My boss, she actually was the one who handled all the volunteers and I kind of just took the mantle when she decided to kind of retire and that’s what’s led me to be here,” Olson said. “But I have a fond love for pond hockey in itself, which is why I keep coming and I will continue to be here for a significant amount of years into the future.”
With Olson at the helm, the volunteers — who are the lifeblood of the event — make the tournament run smoothly. It’s a well-oiled machine.
Katie Holmgren, tournament director and USA Hockey director of program services, knows she doesn’t need to worry about the volunteers during the tournament because they are in good hands.
“Jenn and others who have done it before her really make the difference, because they know so much of what we do,” Holmgren said. “It’s almost like a no-brainer for us, and we almost don’t have to worry about it. And that’s not in a selfish way, it’s just that they know what they’re doing and it’s so reliable. They make it run.”
Having the pond hockey event in Eagle River — which has a population just over 1,500 — all 16 years it has been running is a blessing for the community and its residents.
Eagle River, home of the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame, has a historic rink, called “The Dome.” In 2020, the Eagle River Recreation Association (ERRA) started raising funds to help offset renovation costs and to keep the rink open.
Having Eagle River residents volunteer for the pond hockey tournament helps provide some kickback for the ERRA and the rink.
“Everything is just to help us continue to have a functioning dome and with the last standing dome, I think that’s a really big deal,” Olson said. “To keep it running, that’s what all of us volunteers do at the rink. We are trying to keep the lights on, we are trying to keep it functioning and go, because when we do tournaments at our rink, they want to play in the dome, that’s what they want to do.”
The event is huge for the hockey community in Eagle River, and it also provides economic stimulus to so many businesses.
“It helps hotels, restaurants, everything. It helps our rink, our dome,” Olson said. “For our skaters at our rink, it keeps our registration fees low. If we didn’t have these opportunities (to volunteer), it would be a lot harder for parents, the kids, everything.”
Holmgren said the Eagle River residents’ desire to always lend a helping hand to make the event go off without a hitch speaks for itself.
“I think that says a lot about this town and that it’s a hockey town and there’s a lot of hockey history here,” Holmgren said. “They want to keep hockey growing here, they love having this event here. I think it says a lot about this town, and we’re taking hockey back to its roots. The volunteers here want to be a part of this event.”
Olson is in charge of finding all the volunteers each year to work the tournament. Hockey parents are quick to sign up and social media posts attract other volunteers. Olson said, just like her, there are a lot of people who come back every February to help out.
The volunteers range from around 16 years old to retirement age. Olson has her 13-year-old son running some minor errands such as collecting scoresheets and pucks. Olson tries to minimize the use of any teenagers since the tournament is a beer league atmosphere.
“I’d like to thank everyone, because this doesn’t go smoothly without those volunteers,” Olson said. “The only thing that helps us get through that is them and they should be thanked to the fullest and respected for everything they had to give, especially when it’s cold.”
Leading up to the event each year, Holmgren calls several Eagle River folks who play major roles. When she touches base from her office over 1,100 miles away in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Holmgren’s put at ease about preparations.
“It’s my home away from home and it’s because I talk to them all the time,” Holmgren said. “We’re so in touch with them and it’s really any time I call them, it’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve got it covered.’”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.