The rules are few. There are no coaches, no dues or registration fees, no referees. The competition is low-key. No spectators look on. No money is at stake, no trophies, no local or regional pride, no acclaim in the sports pages. All that exists is the game.
"We're just thrilled to be out in the wintertime," says local pond-hockey enthusiast Robin Davies. "There's definitely a joy of playing. We all love hockey."
This is the impulse at the center of Madison Pond Hockey, a loose-knit, informal group of hockey devotees who gather wherever there is decent ice - even if they must first shovel snow off the ice. You might see them playing at Tenney or Vilas parks, or out on Lake Mendota in the little bay between Picnic and Frautschi points, or on Lake Monona off Monona Terrace or Morrison or Brittingham parks.
They are people like Bill Provencher, a UW associate professor of agricultural and applied economics, who learned to play hockey when he moved to Madison in the early 1990s and stumbled on a pond-hockey game. He was captivated by the easygoing approach of the players.
"Pond hockey is an easy way for someone who didn't play as a kid to enjoy hockey," he says. At 48, he falls somewhere near the middle of the group's age range, which starts with kids and climbs into the mid-60s. Women account for about a third of the group's players, by Provencher's estimate. More than 200 people subscribe to the Madison Pond Hockey listserv, he adds.
"My sense of people who join the group is that they want to have some fun or learn to play the game in a noncompetitive, unthreatening environment," he observes.
"Adults don't seem to play games anymore," he continues. "I think it's good for kids to see adults playing a game for the sheer joy of it. I still go camping, canoeing, kayaking and all that stuff, but this is the only game I still play for the fun of it, like you did when you were a kid."
The group's relaxed approach to the game means there is never a need for the gloves to come off. "A lot of people in this group have known each other for a lot of years," Provencher notes.
On the listserv, members report on ice conditions and announce where and when the group will be playing on any given weekend. "One of the really neat things about this," Provencher notes, "is that from year to year, you never know where you're gonna be playing."
Or with whom. "On a warm, nice day - warm being upper 20s - we could easily have 40 people," Provencher estimates. "I would say there's at least 100 people that come out in any given year. There's a core group of about 30 of us."
At pond-hockey matches, the goal line is defined by a pair of boots. "It's so casual," says Davies of the vibe. A senior media specialist at the UW's biochemistry media lab and drummer for local rock quartets the Motor Primitives and the Sigourney Weavers, Davies has been sidelined by a knee injury but remains devoted to pond hockey.
He says the caliber of play can accommodate both little kids and college players, so long as everyone submits to the group's most fundamental rule:
"Don't raise the puck," Davies intones. That is, keep it on the ice. "If you shoot and you raise it, it's no score." Not that anybody keeps score.
Keeping the puck on the ice is a principle rooted in safety. The group's members wear a minimum of protective gear. For the same reason, aggressive physical contact is also frowned on.
The low-key nature of the group's play makes their version of pond hockey "a comfortable sport for women to come in and kick it around with us," Davies says. And, he notes, the group has seen few unfortunate consequences. In recent years, "We haven't had any big injuries. A couple concussions." That's minimal, he says, "considering how much we play and how little padding we wear."
Indeed, the list of essentials is in the low single digits. "All you have to do is show up with a stick and skates," Davies says, though more shovels are always welcome to help clear snow off the ice. "It's kind of a little ticket to get in. You have to help clear a sheet of ice."
Then you play hockey. For the sake of playing the game.