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Warming up to pond hockey Despite weather, players look forward to next year as more teams take part

It's hard to believe anyone would complain about temperatures nearing 50 degrees -- considering the recent stretch of frigid days.

But Saturday's warm-up couldn't have come at a worse time for some 400 hockey players taking part in the second annual Labatt Blue Buffalo Pond Hockey Tournament at Erie Basin Marina.

On the one day frigid temperatures were needed in Buffalo, a high temperature of 49 degrees was recorded at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. This made for one slushy ice surface on Lake Erie.

Brian Dunn, 26, of Buffalo, described the experience in one word: "Watery."

"You don't usually play in a couple inches of water," he added. "I asked the ref if he was a lifeguard, too."

Still, Dunn and teammate Mike Smietana of Cheektowaga were on the team that won the elite division. And they enjoyed playing in front of the large crowd, which organizers estimated at several thousand people.

"You'd like ideal conditions," Dunn said, "but it was fun."

Labatt USA -- which has its corporate headquarters in Buffalo -- started the pond hockey tournament last year with 16 teams, and with the success of the event, expanded this year to 64 teams in eight divisions.

Labatt would like to make the event even bigger next year, said Mayor Byron W. Brown, who was on hand for the tournament Saturday.

The game format is four-on-four with no goalie and special nets that are 6 inches high and 6 feet wide.

Teams played on eight makeshift rinks on the lake, next to Shanghai Red's restaurant, where the ice was 11 to 16 inches thick.

Organizers were pleased with the turnout from spectators, and thought the games were competitive, but sped up the day's schedule to end a couple hours early.

"The ice surface deteriorated," said Frank Albert, president of Performax Sports in Orchard Park, which managed the tournament. "It was just getting sloppy."

The morning games went well, said Dan Black, one of the players. But as the day wore on, Black passed a pile of slush each time he shot the puck.

"When your skates get soaked," said Black, 30, of North Tonawanda, "that's a problem."

"The one day it's actually warm," groaned his teammate, Jim Verdi.

Temperatures have risen above freezing only eight times this year so far, according to the National Weather Service in Buffalo.

On the other hand, it wasn't a bad day for the players to be outside drinking a couple of beers after the game.

And Black and Verdi look forward to playing in the tournament again.

"Definitely a positive event for us," said Verdi, 34, of Amherst. "We'll do it again next year, for sure."


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