Plaster Rock's a blast

PAT GRIER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

A trip to northern New Brunswick would seem an unlikely cure for those February blahs. But three days in the town of Plaster Rock in the Tobique Valley will do as much for the soul as any beach in the Caribbean. This year, it also has the added benefit of beating those Lockout Blues.

As it has for the past three Februarys, this small lumber town is playing host to the World Pond Hockey Championships, a rather lofty title for what is really just an excuse to gather with your buddies, play some outdoor shinny, drink a few beers and, possibly, lay claim to a global sporting title.

This year 96 four-person teams from across Canada, the U.S. and even England and the Cayman Islands are entered, twice the number of entries from the inaugural tournament in 2002.

As the name suggests, this tournament is played outdoors on 24 rinks carved out of the snow on the thick ice of Lake Roulston. There are no goalies, no referees and no defence. If your team doesn't score more than 20 goals in each 30-minute game you're toast.

The tournament began as a fundraiser for a new indoor arena for Plaster Rock, but it has turned into a tourism gold mine for the region, attracting an estimated 6,000 people for the weekend.

I am one of those, here with three long-time pals sleeping four to a room in a small motel just outside of town and having a blast. This is our second trip and we have no illusions of greatness. (We did last year before reality arrived in the form of a 28-4 drubbing at the hands of some Prince Edward Islanders.) The competition ranges from adult rec league refugees like myself to former junior hockey stars (last year's champions, the Boston Danglers, were four Canadian ex-pats who had all played Division I hockey in the NCAA), but there is a genuine joy all the competitors experience in just playing the game against like-minded folk in a setting that is perfectly Canadian.

"Some of this has to do with the midlife crisis," my friend Tony Valle, 39, said with a smile. "Sometimes you just make a decision you are going to spend some time with your friends and this is a perfect opportunity to do that."

There's a heated beer tent on the ice that features fresh steamed mussels, and players gather in front of the posted standings trying to figure out whether a spot in tomorrow's playoff round is possible.

From its humble beginnings, the event now attracts media from across the continent, from Sports Illustrated to the New York Times as well as the Sun. Today TSN will broadcast live from the pond as part of its six-hour celebration of hockey across Canada.

Yesterday's opening ceremony featured a parade of nations with all 96 teams marching behind their flag. We clumped around the ice in our unfashionable boots and thick toques laughing and feeling slightly foolish, but the contrast to the dour words of Wednesday was stark.

The NHL might have experienced the ultimate February blah, but in Plaster Rock at least, no one else was.


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