Oh, the lessons a team learns the first year competing in the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey National Championships.
The Native picked up a critical piece of information in 2017. The team only brought up four players — the minimum number to compete — to northern Wisconsin.
Not the best idea.
The Native, which is made up of a group of guys from Chicago, didn’t fare too well.
“We went 0-3… we were dead tired,” said team member Kyle Enke.
Having no substitutions made it nearly impossible to compete with the teams that had seven players with fresh legs to choose from on every shift.
“It’s extremely difficult,” team member Bret Simpson said. “Your legs and everything else are hurting at the end of the day. It’s pretty tough.”
When The Native team members got ready to sign up for the 2018 tournament, it was an easy decision to add a couple of players.
With six players on this year’s roster, the guys fared better, going 1-2. The two losses were by a combined nine goals.
“Six [players] was good, though, because we were competitive,” said Enke, who played in the pond hockey tournament in 2015 with a different team. “Seven, I think that’s the sweet spot. You’ve got to have seven. Every team we’ve played has had seven.”
The strategy is already set for next year’s event.
It also helped that the guys played in the Intermediate 21+ Division in 2018 after playing in Bronze 21+ their first year.
The guys happened to just get into the tournament in 2017, and they feel lucky for the opportunity.
“Someone had an extra team last year and gave it to us,” Enke said. “We got up here and got hooked on it.”
The team members — who range in age from 21 to 36 — have a strong on-ice bond, playing together in a weekly adult league at Johnny’s Ice House in Chicago.
“We all flow pretty well together,” Simpson said. “We’ve been switching up our strategy, depending on the team. If we see that we’re a little bit of a stronger team, we’ll switch it up and maybe stagger the guys or do like a 2-1-1. But if we’re playing a little bit tougher of a team, we’ll put three up front and one in back and just kind of use that back guy as a defenseman and a goalie. You’ve got to adapt to every team — every team’s different.”
But playing weekly hockey in an indoor rink and then going outside on the pond are contrasting styles.
“It’s a completely different game,” Simpson said. “Everybody’s really grinding away trying to compensate for the ice — the ice is always a big factor out here. Not so much in a regular ice rink, but out here it’s different.”
The guys know each other well, too, with two sets of brothers on the pond hockey team.
“I don’t get to see my brother too much, so it’s good to hang around with him,” Enke said. “These two [Simpson brothers] probably see each other way too much. They work well together, but significant sibling rivalries sometimes.”
Playing on the same team as a brother combination can have its advantages.
“Everyone’s able to be open and honest and be able to communicate and not really worry about hurting each other’s feelings,” Enke said. “At the end of it, we don’t really care about each other’s feelings that much.”
Simpson plays with his brother, Mike, on The Native.
“There’s the brotherly love, of course,” Simpson said. “It’s a good group, though. Everybody gets together and has a great time. The brother thing just kind of flies under the radar and everybody’s just out here having fun.”
Fun. That’s what it’s all about for the players — on and off the ice.
“The hockey’s fun, but it’s mostly [being] able to hang out,” Enke said. “It’s a weekend with the guys and get to do something out in the snow. Being in Chicago, you don’t get to do anything outside.”
The guys want to have fun, but they also take their hockey seriously.
“We want to win, absolutely,” Enke said. “We try to come up with strategies, talk to other guys — what works for them and try to figure out a way to put us in a good spot.
“We absolutely want to win, but we’re not walking out of there like, ‘Oh man, we lost,’ and our heads are down.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.