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For many, pond hockey tournament is chance to relive old memories on ice

Rod Hartman didn't have far to look for an answer when someone asked why, at the age of 58, he still laces up the skates year after year.

Sitting across the table, Jeff Swan, a longtime friend, just smiled.

"I've played with one or the other for 50 years," Hartman said of Swan and his two brothers. "This weekend is all about hanging out with old friends."

Yes, the competition is nice but, for Hartman, Swan and hundreds of other weekend hockey players, the Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament is about seeing old faces and reliving old memories.

"It's a great hockey reunion," Hartman said. "You talk to 30 or 40 people you would never see otherwise."

For Hartman, it is also an opportunity to reconnect with players he coached in high school, many of them now in their 40s and, like him, still eager to play the game they love.

"We play in an over 40 division and some of us (are) way over 40," Swan, 55, said with a chuckle.

Now in its 13th year, the weekendlong tournament at RiverWorks has become a wintertime fixture and a destination event for out-of-town natives looking for a reason to return to Western New York.

The event attracts more than 850 hockey players, most of them novices or intermediate-level players, and about 130 teams competing at all age levels.

Hartman and Swan were there at the beginning in 2008 for year one, when the tournament was held at Erie Basin Marina and before warmer-than-expected weather forced the move to the man-made ice rinks at RiverWorks.

Hard to imagine but ice can be a rare commodity in February, even in Buffalo.

In 2013, before the move to RiverWorks, the event was held at man-made rinks in the parking lot next to Erie Basin Marina, but even that option proved troublesome. When the temperatures spiked, it caused one organizer to lament, “I don’t know what Mother Nature has against pond hockey.”

This weekend, Hartman and his team, the Old Time Tondas, took to the ice wearing jerseys emblazoned with giant Ts, a shoutout to the now defunct youth hockey organization that introduced hundreds of Tonawanda kids to the sport.

"A lot of people walk up to us and say, 'I've haven't heard that name in years,' " Hartman said of the Tondas moniker.

When you talk to Hartman or Swan or any of the other Old Time Tondas, all of them now in their 40s and 50s, you come away realizing these are guys who can't escape the link between hockey and growing up in Tonawanda.

"We literally learned to play on a pond," said Dan Sommer, a longtime member of the team.

With a big smile, he talked about crossing the Buffalo River Sunday morning on his way to RiverWorks and seeing the cold mist come off the river, and how it reminded him of his days playing hockey on a neighborhood pond near Delaware Avenue and State Street.

"It brought back a lot of memories," he said.

With a bucket of beers demanding their attention, Sommer and his teammates lamented their less than ideal showing this weekend but, even the newbies like Dave Scheuer, 55, and Dean Alessandra, 45, seemed intent on coming back next year.

"I just love to play," said Scheuer. "I just love the game."

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