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A perfect day for a pond hockey game

If there is indeed a hockey god, an all-knowing authority with an appreciation of the sport’s roots on neighborhood ponds and backyard rinks, chances are good our deity is looking down on Buffalo’s Old First Ward and nodding in approval.

There, just a few yards from the General Mills plant, hundreds of hockey players are reliving the game-winning goals, both real and imagined, that still dominate their oldest memories.

They come from as far away as Arizona and California, about 1,000 strong, to play pond hockey, a more simplistic and less serious version of the game played down the road at First Niagara Center.

The goal is always to win the Labatt-sponsored tournament at RiverWorks, the new hockey venue along the Buffalo River, but what truly gets people out is the opportunity to take the ice with old friends one more time.

OK, and maybe the beer too.

“Why not?” said Wendy Hockey, when asked why she made the trek from Maryland to Buffalo. “It’s hockey.”

For the aptly named 48-year-old, this weekend’s tournament is a chance to competitively play a sport she took up only five years ago. And to do it against men.

“I like the aggressiveness,” said Hockey, the only woman on her team. “The men are stronger, faster, quicker. I like the challenge.”

Now in its eighth year, the pond hockey tournament has become a wintertime institution, an annual throwback to the outdoor, pickup hockey games most of the players remember. The rinks are about half the size of an NHL surface and the goals are significantly smaller.

For three days, 144 teams in 12 divisions – novice, intermediate, elite, men’s and women’s – compete for the right to call themselves pond hockey champions.

“It’s three days of being 12 years old again,” said Don Gerary of South Buffalo. “This time with beer.”

This is year seven for Rich Fike of North Tonawanda and Dave Santoro of Lancaster.

For them, the tournament represents a reunion of sorts, a time to see guys you wish you saw more often but, for whatever reason – marriage, kids, work – can’t make it happen.

“We play with friends and we play against friends,” said Santoro. “We always know someone from the other team.”

Dave Borowski of Depew is a veteran, as well, and he laughs out loud when he tells you why. “We’re out here playing a kids game,” he said.

Like so many of the players at this weekend’s tournament, Borowski learned the game on neighborhood ponds and backyard rinks. He says there’s a genuineness to pond hockey that resonates with true fans and brings them back year after year after year.

There are no luxury boxes and no Jumbotrons. The seating tends to be limited, if available at all, and the parking and concessions are significantly cheaper than what you’ll find at a Sabres game.

“That’s part of the appeal for me,” said Mike Raddle, 55, of West Seneca. “It’s also a chance to spend some time with the guys and hopefully win a few hockey games.”

This year, there’s also the frigid weather, a sharp contrast to past years when temperatures in the 50s turned the rinks to water. John Vogel of Amherst remembers those days. “We’re one of the original eight teams,” he said Saturday.

Vogel and his buddies have been coming to the Labatt tournament since its early days at Erie Basin Marina.

“It’s that kid thing,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about, for the love and fun of the game.”

The tournament continues Sunday.