Last weekend — “the best weekend of the year” — attracted hockey players from near and far for the seventh annual Lake Champlain Pond Hockey Classic in Colchester.
This year saw 25 more teams than last, amounting to 14 rinks, 150 groups and 1,200 skaters, event founder Scott Crowder said. Hundreds of spectators lined the Malletts Bay arenas, cheering their friends and family on with a beer in hand, capturing the true spirit of the event, sponsored by Labatt Brewing Company.
“For a lot of [the players] it’s a nice escape,” Crowder said. “It’s an escape from their reality of home and work, and a lot of people are traveling in, so it’s a weekend away with their buddies.”
Only between 10 and 15 of the teams were from Vermont, Crowder said, but it’s an escape even for them. Skater and Colchester native Rick Paparo said his Postbusters team sometimes travels elsewhere to find the unique experience of outdoor hockey, so this backyard-tournament is special.
Resting between rinks with his teammates, including Bill Keryc of Colchester, Paparo and the Postbusters were gearing up for another Saturday afternoon game. But come Sunday, they said they’d be counting down the days until they could return in 2019.
“There’s more people here than I’ve ever seen before,” said Paparo, who’s been playing since the tourney’s birth in 2012.
A rink away, another familiar face took to the ice. Jamie Rozzi, owner of Rozzi’s Lakeshore Tavern and a seven-year participant, has made a strong promise to compete each year after a rocky first experience: He suffered a heart attack during his inaugural game in 2012.
The setback didn’t deter him, though. It propelled him forward.
“I decided I’d make it a plan to come back every year after,” he said. “It’s a survivor thing.”
To him, the tournament “means another year living.” At 52 years old, Rozzi says the outdoor classic brings competitive play to the area. No matter how old a player is, his or her competitive mindset never escapes, Rozzi explained.
This proved true Saturday afternoon as a scrappy IntoxNskated team notched a 4-0 regular play record, defeating Last Stop Slap Shots 9-1. Rozzi’s group continued to the playoffs Sunday, before falling to the Connecticut Turtles 8-7 in the quarterfinals.
Win or lose, Rozzi said the event is more about having a good time and showing people what Colchester has to offer. His restaurant was packed all weekend long, as tourney-goers walked to the top of the marina to celebrate in camaraderie.
Some out-of-staters, like Massachusetts resident Kevin Mach and Connecticut players Dan Mach and Pat “Sully” O’Sullivan, basked in the fun for the first time.
Their games were done, but their skates remained laced up as they traveled from rink to rink to watch more hockey. The group’s 0-4 record didn’t faze them as they joked with prior opponents who were “running out of gas” but headed to their next matchup.
“We just love hockey, and we’re having a great time,” O’Sullivan said, lifting his beer up in affirmation.
Spectators continuously trickled in past a larger-than-life blowup Labatt Blue can, sliding along the ice in their winter boots. The beer tent, fire pit and food truck saw a great deal of action.
Local organizer Lou DiMasi slung up some good eats in the food truck — a bit of a different role than the behind-the-scenes operations he otherwise weathers to get the arena ready.
The Lake Champlain spot is just one pond hockey venue that Crowder’s Pond Hockey Classic organization enlists. The Meredith, N.H. company’s first puck drop was in 2009 on Lake Winnipesaukee, which has grown to 275 teams and 26 rinks.
Crowder’s unsure if Malletts Bay has the capacity to reach these numbers but reiterated the Colchester classic is one of the top-sized pond tourneys in the country.
Crowder said the event has sold out the past four years, calling for this year’s expansion. Still, up to 50 teams remained on the waitlist, he said.
In the headquarters trailer, lifelong Colchester resident Ellen Lefebvre volunteers her time to help operations run smoothly. She’s been involved since the start.
“This brings some really good revenue for the town,” Lefebvre said. “There are a lot of local businesses that I know that benefit from it.”
Back on the ice, a four-legged out-of-stater named Maggie nuzzled against the boards Saturday afternoon, as her parents Gwen and Ron Siegmann watched their son, Cory, vie for the puck.
The Maryland family has traveled to Vermont every year since 2012. Maggie, who joined the team five years ago, now serves as Das Boot’s beloved mascot.
“She comes to see her boys,” Gwen Siegmann said with a big smile.
Unsurprisingly, Crowder said the classic has a 98 percent retention rate. From rink to rink, no matter who was asked, each player said they’d undoubtedly be back next year.
Rozzi was no exception.
“As long as I’m still breathing,” he said.