Players mourn cancellation of U.S. Pond Hockey Championships — by playing hockey

"Cold as Ice" by Foreigner blared from a portable speaker as Steve Wilson took to the rink Friday. He and about a dozen other Frontier Airlines pilots were among the hundreds of athletes whose weekend plans were dashed by the unseasonable warmth that forced U.S. Pond Hockey Championships organizers to cancel the second weekend of this year's event.

Wilson and his fellow jocks were undeterred. They traveled from Pennsylvania, Iowa, Belgium and many points in between to play hockey. So a group of would-be pond hockey players rented the Bloomington Ice Garden for a few hours to play several pickup rounds instead. Nobody is taking home a Golden Shovel this weekend, so why not have fun, anyway?

"I've done a lot in my life but this thing here — 80 dudes coming out to play pickup — it's just cool," Wilson said.

The pond hockey tournament, which usually takes place on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, is one of multiple events that have been drastically altered or outright canceled by an unusually warm winter. Twin Cities-area lakes are usually frozen solid by early December. In 2023, the region logged a record high 54 degrees and more than an inch of rain.

Last weekend offered a reprieve from the relatively toasty temperatures. The pond hockey tournament's first few days went off without a hitch. Then things warmed up again.

"This event sometimes teeters between a couple of degrees, and we've had good luck, and we've had bad luck," tournament organizers wrote on Facebook. "Last weekend was good luck, this weekend is bad luck."

The cancelation led to an influx of visitors at the Ice Garden, according to Manager Lenny Schmitz. This winter, he's seen an uptick in the number of people booking open skate time due to the lack of ice available outside. He lamented the balmy weather on Friday but gladly took the displaced hockey players' reservations.

"That ice — it doesn't pay any bills," Schmitz said.

In all, about 300 pond hockey players and thousands of spectators scrambled for alternative plans. Many traveled hundreds and even thousands of miles.

Tournament organizers set up a Facebook page for the athletes to connect and find facilities to play pickup games. Practically every team that showed up to the Bloomington facility had booked an Airbnb — Sean McCann and his friends on Team Antwerp traveled 11 hours from Belgium to compete.

They discovered the pond hockey championships on Instagram last year. The men named the team after their hometown.

"At first it was an idea and then it became real by saving up some money and getting flights," McCann said.

He and teammates designed custom jerseys sporting a signature blue A and refused to let their new threads go to waste. Not that you could tell anyone in the Ice Garden had landed a consolation prize.

Smiles and fist bumps were abundant Friday morning, as the men played short matches and bounced between three makeshift rinks created by draping netting around the full rink to portion it out. U.S. Pond Hockey Championships organizers even lent equipment to players who organized the pickup games.

Like many of the other men at the rink, Troy DuBay plays hockey every Sunday, and his team already spent the money and made plans to play at the tournament. They figured why not have a little fun anyway.

"It's kind of a drunken weekend sort of thing, at least for our team," DuBay said. "We still want to play."

Several players in Bloomington said they were impressed by how quickly the pickup games came together. They took sips from water bottles — and cans of beer — while they waited for a teammate to tag them into the game.

"I've never seen any sport be able to come together like a community," Josh Lee said.