EAGLE RIVER, Wis. – With his car stationed right on the edge of Dollar Lake, Don Mulder sat in the passenger side, heat blasting through the vents.
With the temperature in the single digits due to an unforgiving wind, one by one, people approached the car, and Mulder rolled down the window. Whether it was a USA Hockey staffer, an Eagle River Fire Department member, an official, they just kept coming. They all wanted to say hi to Mulder.
The 79-year-old is treated like a king. Some might say for good reason. He’s one of the pioneers of the USA Hockey/Labatt Blue Pond Hockey National Championships.
“I guess, I’m one of two guys that are left that founded it,” said Mulder, who is the chairman and vice president of USA Hockey’s Adult Council.
Mulder and former Eagle River Fire Chief Pat Weber are still going strong with the pond hockey tournament since its first event in 2006. Back in 2005, USA Hockey was discussing starting a pond hockey tournament. John Beadle, the vice president of the adult council at the time, threw out ideas to the council, of which Mulder was a member.
“He wanted to take this to Lake Placid,” Mulder recalled, referring to the town in northern New York. “They ran it past Lake Placid and the mayor, and he said, ‘No. I want to stick with a different tournament rather than bring this event here.’ Nobody realized how big this was going to get.”
Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association (WAHA) President Don Kohlman was in on the meeting and piped up.
“He said, ‘I’ve got the perfect spot,’” Mulder recalled. “He got in contact with Pat Weber, and between the two of them and the adult council and myself, we got it all rigged up. We said we’re going to try it for Eagle River, Wisconsin.”
Eagle River it was. Dollar Lake was the ideal spot. The first tournament, held in 2006, had 40 teams. Word got out fast about how fabulous of an event it was.
In 2020, the event reached its highwater mark with 265 teams. This year, with life still returning back to normal from the pandemic, 220 teams ventured to the pond.
“We have like 28 states and two-three countries represented,” Mulder said. “It just gets bigger and bigger.”
Mulder had to make a tough decision in 2021 to not have the tournament because of COVID-19.
“It was really sad, but we understood,” Mulder said. “We have to follow the guidelines of either the city or the counties, and Vilas County [where Eagle River resides] was the reason that this thing was closed down last year. Understandably, they put on a lot of restrictions that we just couldn’t live with.”
This year, USA Hockey cleared the tournament with Vilas County, but it wasn’t fully back up to capacity with teams.
“After the COVID shutdown, we were a little bit concerned about what’s really going to happen, who’s going to show up and who’s going to bail out,” Mulder said. “We had about 10 teams bail out because of the COVID this year, and that’s understandable.
Mulder grew up in Waupun, Wisconsin, which is about 300 miles south of Eagle River. He graduated from high school in 1961 and then worked for 34 years at the Waupun Correctional Institution before retiring in 1996.
Mulder got his first taste of hockey around the late 1970s. Over the years, two of his daughters were involved in figure skating and he had two sons play hockey.
Mulder secured a spot on the Waupun Hockey Association board of directors in 1981. He later served nine years as board president.
In 1982, Mulder was elected to the WAHA board and became a Region 5 representative. He got onto USA Hockey’s Adult Council in the mid-1980s. As the vice president of the adult council, Mulder oversees 21 council members from all over the country.
Volunteering on all the boards has certainly been time consuming.
“I gave up a lot,” said Mulder, who now lives in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, with his wife, Judy. “My previous wife and my kids understood that. I gave up some vacation time for meetings or travel that I had to do.”
Mulder can’t believe he’s been involved with USA Hockey for nearly 40 years.
“I’ve had so much darn fun doing it,” he said. “I’ve met so many good people.”
In June 2021, Mulder was re-elected as vice president of the adult council.
“I’ve got three more years left, the Lord willing,” Mulder said. “That doesn’t mean I’m going away, but there are some good people on the council who can step up and do that.”
Mulder is happy he’s still heavily involved on a daily basis with USA Hockey.
“I’ve got to have reason to get up in the morning,” Mulder said. “This is part of it. I still enjoy it.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.