Bemidji will launch another celebration of winter later this month with the first Lake Bemidji Pond Hockey Classic Feb. 26-28.
"There's a lapse between events in Bemidji, and we needed something to come in and keep up the excitement. We might as well use the resources we're provided," said Derek Leach, manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites and Green Mill Restaurant, and one of the pond hockey tournament organizers.
Feb. 20, the weekend before the pond hockey tournament, the traditional Minnesota Finlandia Cross Country Ski Marathon will be at Buena Vista and the skaters in the third annual U.S. National Speedskating Marathon will compete on the Lake Bemidji 1,000-meter oval. March 5-6, the weekend after the pond hockey tournament, the Bemidji Curling Club will host the Paul Bunyan Men's International Bonspiel.
All these festivals bring visitors to the Bemidji area and provide everyone with opportunities to spend time outdoors.
"It's a whole other sport, a whole other influx of volunteers, a whole other aspect of winter," said Lori Paris, Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce president. "It's heartwarming to see the passion."
This week, organizers will build 10 rinks, each measuring 96 feet by 40 feet on the ice near Nymore Beach. As the tournament approaches, they will use Big Oly, the Hampton Inn's Olympia ice resurfacer, to perfect the glaze.
Derek Leach said some organizers had been talking of starting a pond hockey tournament for several years. He said they thought of hiring an experienced crew to get the project going, "Then we realized we have the resources in this city to do it ourselves."
His brother, Brett Leach, Hampton Inn marketing manager, volunteered at the United States Pond Hockey Classic on Lake Nokomis in the Twin Cities last month to learn some tournament management techniques. He said he will be calling for volunteers, both for setup and game management, through Feb. 19.
David White, tournament director, explained some of the differences between regulation hockey and pond hockey. Most obviously, pond hockey is played outside on rinks about half the size of indoor hockey arenas (185 feet by 80 feet). The side boards are 20 inches high, rather than 4 feet high.
"It's supposed to be hockey in its simplest form," White said.
Each team consists of six skaters, with four team members from each side on the ice at one time. Matches consist of two 15-minute halves with a two-minute intermission between periods. There is no goalie. To score, the players must hit the puck into a goal box.
"It's a lot of skill and finesse," Derek Leach said.
"There's contact, but no checking," White said.
"It's comparable to basketball," said Brett Leach of the contact. "It's pretty self-regulating."
Brett Leach said organizers will host a team signup party and chili feed 6-9 p.m. Feb. 11 at Nymore Corner Bar, a tournament sponsor.
The deadline for registering is Feb. 15 by calling him at 333-4495 or online at bemidjipondhockey.com. He said he expects 70 teams in the women's, open mixed and men's leagues. Team members must be 18 or older and wear helmets. Registration costs $350 per team. Proceeds will benefit the Bemidji Figure Skating Club, Pioneer Speedskating Club and Bemidji Youth Hockey.
There is no charge for spectators to stand around the rinks to watch the action, which will be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. A heated 64-by-90-foot tent will provide concessions of food and drinks, including beer, and live music Feb. 27. There will be fireworks over Lake Bemidji after dark Feb. 27 and Dave Cermak will build a giant bonfire on the ice.