PLASTER ROCK, NB – A man dressed in a hockey jersey in his mid-twenties stops dead in his tracks as he walks by before turning his head quizzically. ‘Are you English’? he asks, whilst sipping on a Budweiser and looking genuinely interested in what my response will be.
After confirming his initial answer as correct the second question follows almost immediately, as it had more than twenty times that evening… ‘They play hockey in England’?
After giving the same answer as always with the composure and delivery of a man holding a press conference and assured of his best lines of response, we shake hands and wish each other well. It was a scenario that would become common over the upcoming weekend.
The setting could not have been more spectacular or suited to the spirit of the World Pond Hockey Championships in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, Canada.
A tiny village of just over 1200 people and boasting the World’s largest Fiddleheads as an attraction, Plaster Rock is possibly not the most obvious choice to host an event named so grandiosely.
After a ‘Northern Exposure-esque’ propeller plane flight from Toronto to Fredericton, a three hour drive was still in order for a London Devils team that had already crossed the Atlantic to reach the home of hockey, Tim Horton’s and maple syrup.
An early first morning saw us presented in front of a classroom of hockey jersey attired local school children at the Donald Fraser primary school.
An open forum of questions from these countryside dwelling kids spanned topics ranging from the Tower of London and the Royal family to the more difficult to answer for your average hockey player; why do different hemispheres have different seasons at different times?
After a confident opening from former Australian International player Howard Jones, who was appearing for the Devils in the tournament, he unfortunately ran out of steam mid-sentence when getting into the finer details of the Earth spinning on an axis.
Our education of the local kids was at an end, but they seemed to enjoy it if not perhaps the gruesome truth of Henry VIII and that famous tower.
An opening ceremony inside the gleaming Tobique Plex arena, was the first introduction to the 2013 Championships and a sobering reminder of just how big hockey is in Canada compared to the UK, evidence if needed given that this tiny village in rural Canada has a better facility than any in London (population of 8 million people) at present.
For the Brits the sight of two ceremonially dressed Mounties were only eclipsed in excitement value by the attendance of Miss New Brunswick who added a touch of glamour to the proceedings.
An hour later and we were on the open ice playing four on four hockey on one of the twenty rinks cleared on it with just the large trees surrounding the Roulston Lake to shield from a biting icy wind.
A reasonably easy first game saw us skate off with a 20-5 win over a team from Brampton, Ontario, and this was despite temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius causing cracks in the ice.
Only on skating back to the heated tent to get changed did the reality set in and the questions that any Brit unused to such cold conditions would be nervous about.
‘So you are going onto a frozen lake, with ice skates on, playing hockey, at the same time as hundreds of people, and there is a heated tent on the ice with trucks and cars and heavy stuff’?
It would be a lie to say that the question of ‘How thick is this ice’ had not crossed my mind at least once on the first evening out there.
A night of drinking and dancing in the large marquee with girls from the Canadian Air Force and Army along with the hundreds of fellow hockey players and locals soon distracted the mind of any safety concerns.
A local band delighted the crowd with catchy ditties about fishing and potatoes amongst other topics not often sung about back in the UK.
Just as a Bolivian silver miner in Potosi adapts to his unique conditions of work so did the Brits to the weather and by the following afternoon we were flying.
Two closely fought wins over a team from Alberta and one from Nova Scotia put a smile on most faces and this was captured by a local TV reporter who asked similar questions to those mentioned at the start of this article.
The temperature had risen to a positively tropical minus 15 by this stage and the ice on the lake was smooth and downright perfect.
‘We have played in quite few pond hockey tournaments this year’ remarked one player from an Ontario based team. ‘But none have had ice as good as this’
The quality of the ice surface was no fluke. The tournament organiser Danny Braun and his army of volunteers had clearly worked extremely hard over the weeks leading up to the games, and the Caterpillar machines churning the ice like makeshift Zamboni’s ensured that the surface was of the highest quality on every one of the rinks on the lake.
The following day, the snow returned and the locals showed their resolve again as they worked tirelessly to clear each rink of the pesky white stuff as pucks dropped on day three of World Pond Hockey action.
An opening game against a team from St John saw us skate away with not only a convincing 21-9 victory but also hats, sunglasses and water bottles generously provided by our opposition as token gifts.
By now hopes were high amongst the London team that Play-Off qualification was within reach but sadly we were to take a hockey lesson and a half by the end of the day.
The simply named ‘Yanks 2’ from Bethesda, Maryland, USA ran over us like a finely tuned steam train and streaked to a 21-9 win over an admittedly shell shocked London outfit.
So despite losing only once our tournament was over but our experience certainly wasn’t.
A dance at the local high school was the order of the evening as a different country band had bodies busting moves and more beer flowing.
‘We had a gig scheduled in Montreal’ announced the lead singer, as he introduced his final number of the night.
‘But we came here to Plaster Rock tonight because your passion and integrity inspire us’
It was on that final night, that the spirit of the tournament and the hospitality of the locals was shown once again to all the players participating.
The dance finished around 1am but the party didn’t stop as locals threw open their doors, providing buffets and beer in the early hours of the morning for anyone who showed up.
Our final hours of that night were spent in the home of a team that have become a regular fixture at the tournament, namely the Montreal Lagers.
Four guys who loved Plaster Rock so much they actually bought a house right by the lake, added a fully functioning bar and pool table and every year host parties’ way into the early hours of the morning during the championships, as well as competing themselves.
With no public transport the locals provide a volunteer shuttle service in branded min vans to let people have a beer and get home safely without the risk of drink driving. That final night, a kind hearted lady dropped us safely to our house without question, something that would rarely happen in our home city.
The final day was spent watching the Play-Off’s, where I spoke to an older couple stood next to the rink where the Cayman Island’s team were playing.
‘They stay with us every year’ said the lady, with a sense of pride.
‘We drive them around, cook their meals and make sure they are ok’
Unfortunately we were unable to stay and watch the final owing to a badly timed flight departure but the winners were local side Acadian Boys from New Brunswick, whilst the women’s section was won by the Budlight Lushes from Maine, USA.
We made our connection with just minutes to spare in Montreal and I stood on the Air Canada London bound jet with sweat pouring off me.
The guy I am about to sit next to looks concerned. ‘Are you ok mate’ he asks in an impeccably Home Counties British accent.
‘Yeah we have just been up in New Brunswick playing ice hockey on a frozen lake, and the flight here was slightly delayed’ I answer whilst putting on my seatbelt.
My companion for the next seven hours takes a breath, pauses and looks straight at me.
‘You’re British and you play ice hockey?’
And so the story goes on…
The World Pond hockey Championships are held every February in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick. The event is so popular it is over-subscribed and a ballot takes place every year to decide which teams can compete. This year the tournament was sponsored by Budweiser. More details on the tournament can be found at the link below:
London Devils are a recreational ice hockey club based in London playing out of the historic Alexandra Palace ice rink.
The 2013 squad for the WPHC: Jamie Mulligan, Kyle Mulligan, David Carr & Howard Jones.
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