There’s never been a shorter journey from the host hotel to a hockey tournament.
How can we be so sure? Because Ocean City’s only ice rink resides inside the Carousel Resort Hotel. It’s a small rink, irregularly shaped and less than half the size of a regulation NHL ice sheet. There’s no ring of dasher boards and no Plexiglas. So how did it become host to one of America’s most unique hockey tournaments?
The answer came from Tom LaTona’s creative imagination.
A longtime hockey referee working throughout the southeastern United States, LaTona, 50, looked at the rink and thought of the American Development Model.
“With USA Hockey recommending cross-ice games for mites, it just dawned on me one day that a mite tournament could work at the Carousel,” said LaTona.
Perched on Maryland’s Atlantic coast, the Carousel is busy in summer months, but quieter in March, making it a perfect fit for hockey. LaTona and a fellow referee, Brian Antkowiak, collaborated on a plan. In a wonderful bit of serendipity, they discovered that Carousel management had been thinking about hockey, too.
“Little did we know that the manager had just recently mentioned wanting to have a hockey tournament there,” said LaTona. “So our timing was great. But unlike a normal ice rink, they don’t make money off ice, they make it off rooms, so we had to commit to a certain number of rooms. Once we worked through that, we just went for it. We sanctioned through USA Hockey, then we bought foam padding and goals and the Carousel agreed to get netting and put it around the perimeter.”
LaTona named it the Mite Beach Bash and began spreading the word throughout local youth hockey programs.
“USA Hockey wants to see more stick handling and skill development for mites, and this was a fun, unique way we could do it, on a smaller ice surface at a family-friendly place like the Carousel,” said LaTona.
Soon responses started rolling in like the nearby Atlantic breakers. LaTona and Antkowiak cut it off at 16 teams, then they created a seeding format that ensured relatively even matchups.
“We didn’t push winning very much,” said LaTona. “Our main focus was to have fun.”
Local businesses helped support the event, including a regional-favorite, Fisher’s Popcorn, which made sure players received a bag of its tasty namesake treat in their participation packs. The Washington Capitals also contributed, donating two autographed sticks and a puck to be raffled, with proceeds benefiting the Fisher House Foundation, a network of homes where military families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving treatment. In addition, LaTona worked with the Carousel staff to offer players a free pizza-and-ice cream lunch on Saturday.
The Beach Bash turned out to be quite the spectacle. Hotel rooms doubled as locker rooms and parents could freely meander from the rooms to the lounge to the rink without missing the action. Suffice it to say, the first hockey tournament in Ocean City history had a distinctly “beach” feel.
“It was just like a rockin’ party,” said LaTona. “And everyone seemed happy about it.”
On the ice, the teams played through their brackets in a 4-on-4 format using blue pucks. On the final day, the bash concluded with eight “championship” games including one “main event” pairing the top two teams.
“There was a lot of good team play,” said LaTona. “A lot more passing and shooting. We didn’t see individuals just going up and down the ice. The close quarters forced them to play real hockey and develop their skills.”
After the finals, players and parents alike expressed delight. In fact, the response was so favorable that LaTona is now planning a second Mite Beach Bash next year, likely preceded by a travel-team event this fall.
“Having this dream become reality is one of the most rewarding things you could ask for,” said LaTona. “I couldn’t have been more pleased. And to see the kids having fun and making memories – that’s what it’s all about.”