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100 Things: Watch Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament

New York City has the Statue of Liberty, a beacon of welcome to newcomers.

Buffalo has the Labatt Blue six pack.

The towering beer cans loom over RiverWorks, the complex at 359 Ganson St. on the banks of the Buffalo River. The 100 Things adventure swung by them on a summer adventure, kayaking on the river.

Now we're back for a winter wonder. From Feb. 17 through 19, RiverWorks is playing host to the 10th annual Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament.

Some 10,000 people turn out for this event, with good reason. There are games and attractions. Last year brought human ice bowling. People on snow saucers, chucked at huge inflatable bowling pins -- is this heaven?

Yes, and the hockey proves it.

[PHOTOS: Smiles at the 2016 Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament]

Spectators watch the 2016 Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament from above in Buffalo RiverWorks. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

Some of the 144 teams, chosen by lottery, come from afar. But lots of teams are clearly made up of your friends and neighbors. Talking Proud. Chiavetta Potatoes. Crusaders. Amherst Coaches. Buffalo Tap Room. Swannie House. Here For the Beer.

And the Queen City Squirrels. Their motto is "Go Nuts!"

Once, the team was defending itself against the Hanson Brothers -- named for, and resembling, the guys in the movie "Slap Shot." A puck zoomed in, shattering the skates of a couple of Squirrels, including founding member Mark Kuntz.

The Queen City Squirrels and the Hanson Brothers face off again this year. But Kuntz, 32, holds no grudge.

"You give 100 percent on the ice. You give it your all," he said. "Things might get heated a little, but afterwards you give each other hugs, shake each other's hands, head to the bar and have a beer."

That's the beauty of the tourney, said Scott Propeack, chief curator at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Propeack plays -- alongside a software engineer, an electrical engineer, two PhDs, another curator, and a lawyer -- on a team called the Blazing Hips. The absurd name comes from a skating drill that requires you to skate as hard as you can.

Participants in the 2016 Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament watch from the bench. Propeack, right, is the chief curator at the Burchfield Penney. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

Propeack, 46, knows the drill. He never skated before he began playing pond hockey, at 39. He loves how the sport welcomes everyone: novice or veteran, skater or spectator.

"We live in a very sports-oriented town. And with professional sports, you can be a fan, or you're out of it," he said. "This is an opportunity where, no matter how serious you are or how much you see it as a fun event, you can be involved."

In colder regions, the Labatt hockey happens on frozen lakes. The first tournaments in Buffalo did, too. The event took place at the Erie Basin Marina before moving to RiverWorks in 2014.

A look down at the 2016 Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament from above. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo)

"Skating on the lake is romantic, but it's not practical because this year, there's no ice," said Propeack. "One year, they had street hockey instead, because there was no ice. It wasn't as much fun. RiverWorks is set up so perfectly, and it's a fun atmosphere. People come in just to see it, even if they're not connected with teams."

Kuntz also cheered the change.

"Their rinks are just covered, so you still feel the elements," he pointed out. "When it's snowing, it blows in, gets on the ice. It gives us that pond feel."

The half-enclosed venue allows onlookers to watch games from overhead. The party goes into the night.

"It just gets better each year," said Kuntz. "There are deejays. There's always music. There's Labatt's! You can't not want that." He laughed.

Children play a game of bubble hockey inside RiverWorks during the 2016 Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"There's giveaways. There's usually some sort of contest going on. Friendly faces. The workers are awesome there. I don't know how to put it. To see six games going on at once. Just to go up on the top observatory, especially little kids, they're 90 percent not going to get hit by a puck. Which is a good thing, I wouldn't want my little one getting hit by a puck. They peek their heads through and see Mom or Dad playing. You got your young guys, your old guys. You've got everyone covered. It's surreal. You walk in and it's as if you're at home."

Teams pay to play, but spectators get in free. Make a day of it, Propeack suggests.

"The police and the firemen play each other. That's actually great to see," he said. " Those guys are great skaters and in great shape, competitive. Also they understand that it's just for fun. Go and spend the day, is what I would say. Treat it like a festival."

Smiles from a few of the teams competing in the 2016 Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

You might score a goal you never expected.

"I think if people embrace winter outdoor activities, it's amazing how quick winter passes by," Propeack said.

"If you're afraid of winter, it lasts. If you embrace it, it ends before you're ready."


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