Who in the world has ever heard of Plaster Rock, New Brunswick? Prior to the World Pond Hockey Championships, not too many.
These days the village of 1,200 is known in many parts of the world and it's all due to Canada's passion for hockey.
The town is just recovering from five great days of fun, hospitality and playing pond hockey.
What started in 2002 with a few teams playing in a pond hockey tournament has grown to 120 teams. Unless they build more infrastructure there is no more room to grow.
"It's been amazing to see the growth of this event," Danny Braun told TSN.ca.
Braun is the director of community development for the village and a few years ago was trying to find a way to raise money for a rink.
His first stab was running a snowmobile drag racing event in 2000. The village built a huge sheet of ice for the event. The event was great, people and racers turned out but the organizers made no money. As Braun says, "we could have held a hot dog sale and got as much."
Ultimately, Braun and hotel owner Tom Chamberland came on the idea of a pond hockey event and in 2002 the first one was held. Forty teams came to Plaster Rock, most from the Maritimes and a few from the USA. Plaster Rock is only a few minutes away from the state of Maine.
"We marketed the event through hockey rinks and that is how it started," says Braun.
It was the response that was interesting as nearly 100 teams applied that first year.
And so the growth began. From the original 40 teams, the event doubled in size to 80 in 2004, 96 in 2005 and it reached the maximum of 120 teams in the last two years.
"We had over 800 applications from all over the World but we don't have anywhere for them to play and stay," Braun told TSN.ca
In fact not only are all the accommodations taken in Plaster Rock but teams are driving to Perth-Andover, Edmundston, and Woodstock. Some even cross the border at Presque Isle, Maine to stay.
So how are the teams selected? Most of them come in through a lottery but there are several teams who are considered charter members. This only applies to the 40 teams in 2002, providing they still have three of their four original players.
The format is four-on-four hockey with certain rules. The rinks (there are 24 of them used at the time) are 165' by 60'. The nets are six-feet long but only 10 inches high. That is done so pucks aren't flying all over the place and hitting people. A player has to be over the centre line in order to score. While there are no goalies a player can 'be the goalie' but can't lie down or spread himself to block the shot.
One other rule is, if a team is called for a penalty of any kind, the opposing team gets a free goal. Needless to say penalties are at a minimum.
Not only was this year's event a success but it featured the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Harper took in some games and officially dropped the puck to kick of the event. The official draw featured former NHL player Brian Skrudland and his Calgary rink facing off against a bunch of minor hockey players from Plaster Rock. The kids won the draw.
It's also interesting to note that this marked the first time ever (since Confederation) that a Prime Minister visited Plaster Rock, NB.
Over the years the event has generated media attention. In the beginning the coverage was local and regional, however over the last few years it's become international, being on the front page of the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other media outlets.
As for the teams, while they started out from New Brunswick and Maine, the event now draws teams from across Canada and places such as Egypt, the Cayman Islands, Switzerland, Poland, China and Germany.
Teams pay $450 to play on one of the 24 sheets of ice on the lake. There is a separate sheet that is reserved for the championship game.
Each team is guaranteed five games. The games are 30 minutes long with a five minute intermission.
Most teams carry only four players, however teams are allowed to carry and use a fifth man for injury or sickness. The rule is much like the baseball pinch hitting rule where once a person is taken out, he cannot come back in the tourney.
The event is open to those 19 and over. Some are 19 and some are 60 but the average age is 35-45.
Braun tells TSN.ca that it's not about winning but truly having fun.
"Yes, there's a nice trophy but it's about the fun, the going back to the old days where many as kids first skated on a pond or river in this country."
Darren Cossar, who has played semi-pro hockey and is now the executive director of Hockey Nova Scotia, says the event was a blast.
"We heard about it, were able to get in and I couldn't believe what a great showcase it is. You come out of the woods onto this lake and it's like skating on Christmas morning. Our team can't wait to get back next year."
His team called the Nova Scotia Deckers (the boys were having a beer on a deck, hence the name) made it to third spot in the tourney. "We never expected to get that far and we had a blast," Cossar told TSN.ca
In the end the Boston Dangles won their third straight Pond Hockey title with a 10-7 victory, outlasting the MTV 2-Headed Dogs in front of some 600 fans on Plaster Rock's frozen Roulston Lake.
The team is composed of Rob Atkinson, Rob Beck, Mark Cornforth and Mark Goble. They all played together at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
The final is over by 3 pm Sunday and by 6pm, other than a big tent which will be picked up the next morning, everything is gone.
"We have over 200 volunteers and they do a terrific job," says Braun. When you consider there are only 1200 in the town and many are in the stores, hotels and restaurants, once realizes this may be the most community support per capita in this country.
The dates for next year haven't been set yet as the organizers try to squeeze it between the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500.
However calls have already come in for Pond Hockey 2008.
For TSN.ca I'm Alex J. Walling
Alex J can be reached via email at: email@example.com