Nichelle Simon is, by any measure, a skilled hockey player.
She played at the famed Shattuck-St. Mary’s School and went on to compete at the Division III level in college.
But when the 35-year-old stepped on the ice for the first time at the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships, her skills didn’t do her much good.
The ice surface on the pond was rough. And that might be putting it lightly given the natural cracks and ruts of outdoor ice.
“I felt like a deer on ice, a baby deer,” Simon joked. “I couldn’t stand up, and I was like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ I was very frustrated the first game. I was like, ‘I don’t even want to go to the second game.’ I was so upset.”
Hockeynauts, which came up from Huntsville, Alabama, took a thumping 17-3 to the Moose Knuckles. That was the wakeup call the Southern players needed.
Simon and her teammates had never played hockey on a pond before. Ever. Most of the players were born and raised in the South.
The annual tournament held on Dollar Lake in Eagle River, a city in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, can be downright frigid. But it wasn’t the cold that got the best of the Hockeynauts players.
“The first time on the ice, it’s hard to stand up,” said team member Eric Smith, who is also Simon’s boyfriend. “You can’t glide. There’s just different strategies and we got our butts handed to us. I tried to skate backwards a few times and I just completely lost it. One time, I turned my back to the boards and there weren’t any [boards] and I just ended going right over the snowbank. Everybody laughed at that.”
Hockeynauts, which played in the 21+ Bronze Division, settled in for its second game and realized more passing and less stickhandling is the best game plan. The team won its final two games, 13-4 and 7-4.
“I was very happy with it,” said Simon, who played hockey at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Neumann College in Philadelphia. “There was nothing we could have done in the first game. We played the fourth-best team in our division in our first game, so not only did we suck, but they were really good.”
Because of goal differential, the team didn’t advance to the playoffs and finished in 13th place. Not making playoffs didn’t discourage the Hockeynauts team members.
“That honestly wasn’t what it was about,” Smith said. “We just wanted to play and have a good time, and we certainly did that.”
Hockeynauts were a mix of five men and two women ranging in age from 26-54. The dynamic of the team — it’s an extremely tight-knit group — was like no other.
“Our guys love us, and we might be the best players on the team,” Simon said, laughing. “That’s probably why they love us.”
Simon was awestruck that everything went so smoothly for three days at a tournament with roughly 270 teams.
“I’m amazed by the size of that tournament, the number of teams, the rinks, the work that went into making those rinks and prepping all that stuff,” Simon said. “I know the little details that take a lot of prep work, so I was thoroughly impressed with how it ran. There were no issues the entire time. I’ve never been to a tournament that big or anything that big that didn’t have any issues or conflicts.”
Smith enjoyed the atmosphere of the tournament and the fun-loving players who participated.
“What was really cool was how everybody else had a lot of sportsmanship, a lot of people just wanting to play,” said Smith, who is 52 years old. “It wasn’t near as an aggressive game as normal hockey. It was a totally different group feel.”
Hockeynauts fit in well at the tournament, which had the majority of its competitors coming from the Midwest or Northern states.
“Everybody looks at us when we say we’re from Alabama,” Simon said. “It was a good talking point among everybody.”
Smith feels like the team represented the South with a lot of pride on the ice.
“They call Huntsville the Hockey Capital of the South, and there’s a reason,” Smith said. “Hockey’s really strong down here, surprisingly.”
When the Hockeynauts players returned home from the tournament, they told people in the North Alabama Senior Open League — the league they play in on a weekly basis — about their amazing experience. Now, other league members want to make the trek up to northern Wisconsin next February.
“I think everybody definitely wants to come back,” Simon said. “I think if you would have asked me after the first game I might have said, ‘I’m leaving right now and never coming back.’ After the second and third games, we had a lot of fun.”
Smith said he wouldn’t be surprised if two or three teams from Huntsville are coming in 2019.
“I can’t say enough about it,” Smith said. “I’ve done a lot of different things in this life, but this was probably top two or three for me. It was really something else.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.