It’s the tight-knit townspeople who may have saved the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships from getting cancelled this year.
The third week in January it was discovered that the ice on Dollar Lake – the venue for the first nine pond hockey championships – wasn’t thick enough to safely get equipment out to prepare the area for the event.
“When we got the call that the lake is really unplayable and there’s nine inches of slush on top of the ice, it just wasn’t going to make sense,” said Ashley Bevan, USA Hockey’s senior director, adult hockey. “We toyed with, ‘What do we do? What can we do?’”
Plan B needed to be implemented. One problem: there’s never been a need for an alternative option, thus there wasn’t a Plan B.
“Thank God for Pat Weber, the (Eagle River) fire chief, who said, ‘Let’s go out to the derby track and take a look,’” said Kim Emerson, the executive director of the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce. “USA Hockey came in, went over it all with them and they all agreed this would be a great place to hold it this year.”
The AMSOIL World Championship Derby Track is used for the World Championship Snowmobile Derby, which is run in mid-January every year.
It was the perfect solution.
The volunteers on the Eagle River Fire Department, as well as members of the Eagle River Recreation Association and some local citizens went to work immediately in the tight time frame.
“They worked two weeks straight in getting it ready,” Emerson said. “A lot of work, a lot of man hours. It’s a great volunteer fire department and without them, this event wouldn’t happen.”
With all the community help and support, the pond hockey championships went off without a hitch.
“We’re very glad that we made the decision to get off Dollar Lake due to playing conditions, and participant safety is our number one priority,” Bevan said. “We’re extremely pleased with the community coming out to support the event. We’re very happy the derby track opened their arms, and overall the event worked out really well.”
Eagle River, which is known as the Snowmobile Capital of the World, did everything in its power with its community members to make sure the pond hockey championships ran as scheduled.
According to Emerson, the economic impact of having the pond hockey championships in Eagle River is a “couple million dollars” annually.
“It would have been heartbreaking I think for a lot of those businesses, because the fact that they do plan on all these people being here,” Emerson said. “The restaurants are ordering all their supplies and the gas stations and the grocery stores.”
After determining it was going to utilize the derby track, USA Hockey sent out an email to each pond hockey team’s captain about two weeks before the event to inform them of the venue change.
“We’re from Chicago and we’ve had a warm winter, too, so we were kind of curious if the ice conditions would be rough on the lake,” said Bob Massa, who was a member of the Cheeps, which won the Bronze 21+ Division. “That didn’t surprise us too much, but kind of bummed it wasn’t on the lake again.”
Jason Dotray – a team member of the Leftovers, the winners of the Bronze 30+ Division – was grateful for the time the local volunteers put in to make the event happen.
“If you look at it, it looks like they’ve been planning this for months,” Dotray said. “You talk to the volunteers about all the work they put into it, it’s mind-blowing.”
The players shouldn’t get too comfortable with the confines of the derby track since it will probably be a one-time shot.
“What we’ve been told and what everybody really wants is to have it back out at Dollar Lake,” Emerson said. “It was a great venue here at the derby track and we’re glad we had it, but I know there’s a lot of players missing being out on the lake.”
The lake is definitely the consensus pick for the players.
“It’s nicer to be on the lake getting changed and they’re piping the heat in your little tent,” Dotray said. “It feels a little more old school and traditional.”
Overall there were 122 teams from Illinois in 16 Divisions. Congratulations to the Wolfpack, Euroteam, Cheeps, Manitou Island Selects, Flying W and Pepper’s Lemont Auto for their 1st place finishes in their divisions.