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Let's play two: Labatt pond hockey holds pre-tournament

Teams with names like Mid Ice Crisis, Here for Beer and Old Skool hit the ice at Buffalo RiverWorks on Sunday, as the Labatt Blue Buffalo Pond Hockey Tournament tried something new: adding a one-day competition as a prelude to the main tournament.

More than 200 players from 24 teams competed in three divisions in a game schedule that spanned more than six hours. The larger main tournament begins Thursday and runs through Sunday, and is expected to attract 700 players.

One of those players, Keith Swaim of Maryland, who plays for the Hockey Donkeys, was savoring a 19-13 victory Sunday. The team camaraderie is part of the tournament's appeal, he said.

"Last night was great," he said. "We sat around and had a team dinner, drank some wine and maybe had a couple of shots, and definitely had some Labatts. It was good."

Labatt USA moved its headquarters to Buffalo in 2007, so the annual tournament reinforces the brand's Buffalo connection. "At the end of the day, we're here for the players," said Gina Heine, associate brand manager for Labatt Blue. "If we can provide this experience for them and allow them to compete and enjoy some beers afterwards with their buddies, that's all we can ask for."

Organizers added the one-day version this year after getting feedback from some players who said it was difficult for them to commit to a weekend of games or to travel here on a Friday beforehand, said Heine. "It allows more flexibility, so we can accommodate people better and make sure they can get here."

The two tournaments are bringing in players from seven states, Heine said. Teams are assigned to different divisions based on their skill level.

Players interviewed had differing opinions about the one-day format. Some said it was more convenient than committing to more than one day. But others – many of the players are on the other side of 30 – said it was a lot of games to pack into a few hours, and they preferred to have a chance to see opponents and old friends over a long weekend of play.

They all have their own style. The Old Skool team was hard to miss: their jerseys resembled tuxedos. Its players hail from the Washington, D.C., area, including some Western New York expatriates like Scott Kocher, who went to Sweet Home High School. The team won its opener, 19-11, and enjoyed the atmosphere on the ice.

"They were totally gentlemen about it," said Shane Cashdollar, referring to their opponents. "No one was a jerk."

Shane Cashdollar of the Old Skool team. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

For the matches, the two rinks at RiverWorks are each divided into thirds, with four players one a side and no goalies. The pond hockey nets mean even a low wrist shot is probably too high to score. When goals are scored, there's no red light, horn or "Let Me Clear My Throat" blaring on the PA system. Instead, the opposing team digs the puck out and plays on. A referee toting a clipboard keeps score.

This is the 11th year of the pond hockey tournament, and the fifth time RiverWorks has played host. The venue's refrigerated rinks mean organizers don't have to fret about whether the ice will be thick enough to play on – an occasional concern when the games were played at Erie Basin Marina. (One year it was so warm, the event was converted to street hockey.)

Without the ice to worry about, the tournament has turned to expanding its attractions beyond the rinks, adding features like a zip line and rock climbing outside of RiverWorks, and bands performing on an indoor stage, Heine said.

The action inside RiverWorks was constant. Each game lasts 26 minutes, with a one-minute break in the middle. Once a game ended, the players shook hands and skated off, and the next game's teams were ready to hit the ice. After every couple of games, the Zamboni cleans the ice. Each team was guaranteed three games in a round-robin format, plus an additional game for the teams that reached the finals.

Spectators looked on from the second level. Jaclyn Faliero of South Buffalo was trying to stay warm while watching her fiance, Sean Adymy. "They're just here to have fun," she said. "They come across some good guys. Some are more competitive than others, but everyone is out here to have fun."

Heine said that spirit is what keeps players coming back. Some teams have participated all 11 years of the tournament's history. "These players are so good about keeping it friendly on the ice and having a good time, and I think that's why they like this," she said.

The winning teams from Sunday's event were: Novice division: DPW; Intermediate Blue division, Easton Fection; Intermediate Blue Light division: Great Skate.

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