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Pond Hockey Championships an Annual Highlight for Gappers

By Greg Bates, 02/19/18, 7:15AM MST


Chicago and Milwaukee-area team has been playing in Eagle River since 2014

For the first three years they played in the annual Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships, the Gappers competed with six players.

“They realized that six wasn’t enough,” team member Jeremy Vale said. “They needed a seventh.”

“We were exhausted,” team captain Brian Zinkel said. “We just figured we have a goalie and then we’ll just rotate two lines of three. That was the more logical thing to do in the long run.”

Vale was added to the team for the 2017 tournament to round out the roster.

“We needed the right guy,” a teammate added.

Was Vale the key piece to the puzzle?

“For sure,” he said.

“We’re not looking for the best players, we’re looking for the right players,” a teammate squawked.

The guys love to joke with each other. But adding a seventh player — which is the maximum number of players per team — has translated into success for the guys who hail mostly from the northwest suburbs of Chicago and one player from Milwaukee.

The Gappers have done well in past years, but narrowly missed out on playoffs this year in the 30+ Bronze Division. Last year, the team downed the eventual champion in its division in pool play, but lost in the playoff quarterfinals.

“We definitely want to play as many games as possible,” Vale said.

Playing in 30+ Bronze is the ideal division for the guys.

“If we went any higher, we’d be struggling,” Vale said. “If we went any lower, I think we’d feel like we weren’t getting challenged.”

The Gappers are serious about playing well over the weekend, but they know the annual trip to northern Wisconsin is more than just playing their favorite sport.

“It’s a business and pleasure trip,” said Zinkel, who first brought up his team in 2014. “We want to obviously win, but if we don’t win it’s still fun to be with your buddies and hang out.”

“We’ve been friends for years, so there’s history,” Vale said. “We’re playing hockey to have a good time, but the rest of the time we’re hanging out, it’s easy and we mesh. We’re having a great time.”

The guys rent a house every year and enjoy the getaway. All the players are in their low to mid-30s and six of the seven are married and half have kids. So, taking a boys’ weekend once a year is a must.

A lot of the players grew up playing high school hockey together or are from the same area. Also, most play in an adult hockey league together at the Crystal Ice House in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

Playing on the pond is a different experience than regular adult league hockey, but the guys have adapted over the years. They’ve figured out that taking short shifts are the key so they can go on the ice and skate fast. The team has a strong chemistry on the pond.

“We yell at each other, but it’s always friendly,” Vale said. “We know our line and it really allows you to get a good flow going.”

What makes it fun to keep traveling north to the tournament every year?

“Hockey,” Vale said with a laugh. “The whole atmosphere is great. We’re here to play hockey, we take it seriously. We want to win, but it’s excellent just being able to hang out and have a good time with everybody. The attitude is just wonderful. Even after you play a game and it’s over and be able to shake hands with the guys and talk about how it’s going and the rest of their games are going, it’s great.

Zinkel enjoys the overall feel of the tournament and being apart of the hockey brotherhood.

“I like the camaraderie of everybody here,” Zinkel said. “Pond hockey is special, it reminds me of childhood and hockey at its finest. It’s a thing now for our team to come up here and have a good time.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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The Over-80 USA Hockey Team, comprised of players from eight different states (New Hampshire, Minnesota, Alaska, Massachusetts, Colorado, Illinois, Florida and California), came together in the Fall of 2023 to compete in the Canada 150 Cup tournament in B