By DILLON TABISH for the Flathead Beacon
Before indoor leagues and coliseum rinks, hockey was played in the open air atop a frozen pond or lake.
Generations of devotees developed their first skills and passion on natural outdoor ice, including a young Wayne Gretzky, who began playing on an iced-over river behind his grandmother’s home in Brantford, Ontario. In much the same way, the sport sprouted from its humble beginnings into an experience that today mostly takes place on shiny arena rinks.
Spurred by upstart tournaments on the East Coast and a critically acclaimed documentary, a spirited revival of so-called pond hockey is taking place across North America, and the Flathead Valley is being swept up in the craze.
The Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau is building on its successful streak of hosting signature events like the Spartan Race and Dragon Boat Festival and recently announced its latest major acquisition: the Montana Pond Hockey Classic.
Slated for Feb. 21-23, the four-on-four hockey tournament will take place atop frozen Foys Lake west of Kalispell. A large tract of private property near the county’s lakeshore park will host the event’s festivities, including vendors, family games and even an appearance by the NHL’s Stanley Cup, according to organizers.
The event, which is featuring NHL Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald as its spokesman, is being marketed in cities across the U.S. and Canada, including in NHL arenas.
Organizers believe it will attract a large number of out-of-market visitors, particularly from up north where hockey is the national pastime, during a time of year that is typically quiet.
“Our core mission is to introduce these unique events at specific times of the year in our valley, and this is one of those signature events,” Rob Brisendine with the KCVB said.
The KCVB is partnering with an event management company based in New England that operates two other Pond Hockey Classic tournaments, in New Hampshire and Vermont. Both events annually attract between 125 and 225 teams from across the U.S. and Canada.
“We pride ourselves in offering a top notch tournament experience,” Scott Crowder, the commissioner of the Pond Hockey Classic management company, told the Beacon.
Organizers are anticipating the Kalispell tournament will have 600 participants and roughly 1,200 spectators for each of the three days.
The tournament will feature adult teams for men and women of all skill levels participating in separate divisions. Teams of six will compete with four players on the ice wearing basic gear. Registration is open until Feb. 17.
“It’s going to be a very cool event for the area, so we’re pretty excited to be a part of it and to bring it to town,” Crowder said.
Brisendine and the KCVB contacted Crowder last year with a proposal to host a Pond Hockey Classic tournament in Northwest Montana. Although the company had stayed close to its roots in New England’s strong hockey hub, the staff ventured West.
“We talked with the local businesses and saw what the hockey community was and what the area was like,” Crowder said.
“Being an absolutely stunning and beautiful location that has a frozen lake and the Montana hospitality — that’s what sold us. We said, ‘This can work and will be a very, very beautiful and unique place to host this.’ That’s what we look for.”
POND HOCKEY CLASSIC
Feb. 21-23 Foys Lake, Kalispell
Teams from all over North America are expected to arrive in the Flathead Valley and participate in this four-on-four hockey tournament.
Registration is open for six-man teams in various skill level divisions for adult men and women. The three-day event will feature activities for the entire family and an appearance by the Stanley Cup.
To register, visit the Pond Hockey Classic website at www.pondhockeyclassic.com.