The country’s first organized game of ice hockey was played on a pond in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1883, and it took a whole decade before anyone got around to building an indoor rink (this in swampy Baltimore). Today, youth-hockey participation is surging in places like Florida and Vegas, where the only ice is in arenas and beverages. But in Maine, love for the alfresco version of the game has never faded.
“You’re outside, you can hear your skate blades on the ice, you’ve got crisp air hitting your face,” raves Alyssa Carignan, one of the organizers of the 16-year-old Rangeley Pond Hockey Festival, which draws as many as 200 players every February, from as far away as Florida, to the western Maine high country. “You look around, and you’re surrounded by snow, trees, and mountains.”
Beyond the superior scenery, pond hockey differs in a few key ways from the version you might know from college games or the NHL. For starters, there are no goalies, just two pallet-like wooden cartons, six feet long and two inches high, with a pair of 12-inch slots for a well-aimed puck to slide into. Players must keep the puck on the ice — no slapshots! — and typically, there are no refs, so minor penalties are admitted on the honor system. The ice, of course, is rarely as flawless as indoors, so the skating may be on the rougher side. Most importantly, there is no checking in pond hockey.
“People have got to go to work on Monday,” says Patrick Guerette, who organizes another tournament, the Maine Pond Hockey Classic, on Messalonskee Lake, in Sidney. Although both tournaments sort teams into divisions by experience and age, play in Rangeley tends to be more across-the-board recreational, while the Classic registers more players who’ve competed in college and pro leagues (last year, one team included Olympic speed skater and erstwhile Maine native Marc Pelchat).
But the tournaments have plenty in common. Like all pond-hockey games, they’re at the mercy of Mother Nature — who, in 2013, dropped 18 inches of snow on the Messalonskee ice the night before the first games. Both tourneys rely on troupes of volunteers to keep the ice clear (as well as to set up, keep score, and more). On Rangeley’s Haley Pond, volunteers use a modified John Deere truck as a Zamboni. Last year, an unseasonably warm and drizzly spell caused the Rangeley festival’s cancellation — doubly frustrating, Carignan says, since COVID had nixed it the previous year.
Moreover, both tournaments are festive affairs. Rangeley has a tailgate vibe, with plenty of spectators, tents and grills on the ice, and local students and civic groups selling chili and cocoa. Messalonskee has a beer garden, where teammates and opponents mingle after hard-fought games, and the weekend culminates with the presentation of a trophy crafted from 20 or so broken hockey sticks.
“We’ve become like family in Rangeley,” says Becky Good, a retired phys-ed teacher who spearheaded that tournament’s first all-women team, the Beavers, back in 2009 (these days, there’s a whole women’s division, along with a men’s and a co-ed). Now 61, she used to play at the University of Maine, back when women’s ice hockey was just a club sport. Some of the out-of-state pond-hockey pals she’s made in Rangeley, Good says, have since bought camps and established a summer presence there.
Whatever happens on the ice, Guerette explains, tournament competitors are a tribe. “It’s a really good reason,” he says, “to get together with friends in the middle of the winter and say, ‘Hey, this is our thing. We do it every year.’”