Thursday, January 31, 2008

World Pond Hockey Championship

About this time four years ago, the New England Patriots were about to beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. February (2004) also marks the month in which the Boston Danglers claimed fame at the World Pond Hockey Championship in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick. The story I wrote for that village’s Web site has since been removed, so as the Patriots march toward a fifth Super Bowl victory and the Danglers seek to claim their fourth consecutive title, I present the first half of the original pond hockey story. I’ll post the second half—and an update on this year’s ice games—after the Super Bowl and World Pond Hockey Championship conclude.

February 2004
Canadian Ex-Pats Reunite at the Pond Hockey’s Super Bowl
Plaster Rock, NB—“These (guys) are good,” says the opponent with the black and white mouthpiece to the scorekeeper/referee (me) as his team warms up on one half of the ice.

Good? And the New England Patriots are just an above average football team.

Mark Cornforth, Mark Goble, Cooper Naylor, and Robbie Atkinson (collectively known as Team #42, a.k.a. The Boston Danglers) are at the World Pond Hockey Championships in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, carving up the other half of the miniature hockey rink with powerful strides and delivering short crisp passes to each other. While the northern New Brunswick sky releases its last lazy flakes this Saturday morning, hundreds of spectators are watching not only the two teams on Rink J, but also the other 78 teams in the tournament.

It’s a great day for hockey…purists. No overpriced pretzels, no TV timeouts, and no Ice Girls; just pond hockey with your buddies. The four former Merrimack College hockey players have driven seven hours north, from Boston to their native Canada, for the third annual World Pond Hockey Championships. After three games, the Danglers are undefeated. More importantly, they’re having a good time and are helping Plaster Rock’s citizens raise money for a new recreational facility for the youth of the village that lies in the Tobique Valley, about thirty miles east of Caribou, Maine.

Between 1990 and 1995, one or more of the foursome donned the Warrior Navy Blue, Gold, and White. For two of these seasons, 1992–93 and 1993–94, all four played together and were regular contributors to the Ron Anderson-coached teams, teams that didn’t have quite the star-power of their league rivals. Take the University of Maine, for example. The Black Bears boasted a lineup emboldened with future NHLers: Paul Kariya, the Ferraro brothers, and the goalie tandem of Garth Snow and Mike Dunham. Other Hockey East opponents fostered players who made The Show, including Northeastern University, where current Boston Bruin Dan McGillis, patrolled the blue line.

Mark Cornforth—or “Corny” as his teammates call him—also made it to the big time and bright lights of the NHL. After toiling away for the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch and then for the Baby B’s in Providence, he was signed by the Boston Bruins as a free agent on October 6, 1995. But his NHL career lasted only six games. He returned to the minor leagues for four years, ending his professional hockey career with the Springfield Falcons in 1999.

“Coop” Naylor had called it quits by then, although he had also played for the Falcons—the Fresno Falcons—during the 1995–96 Season. Before that, he skated for the Raleigh Ice Caps for two seasons. After Goble made the 1992–93 All-Rookie Hockey East squad (along with McGillis and Kariya), “Gobies” played two more years for the Warriors. He amassed 62 points in his 102-game career at Merrimack College. Gobies says that “after a frustrating junior year, a senior year that started well but was then riddled with injuries, and then a sobering realization that the NHL was very unlikely for me at a towering 5'9"—I decided to enter the workforce instead of spending any time in the minor leagues.”

Robbie Atkinson capped his four-year college career by totaling 41 points (17 goals, 24 assists) his senior year. He then took his game to the European Hockey league, playing for the Netherlands’s Geleen Smoke Eaters. He returned to the States in 1995 to play in the East Coast Hockey League. In his second and last professional hockey season, playing for the Mobile Mysticks, Atkinson tallied 61 points and an equal number of penalty minutes. He also played in three play-off games, scoring one goal and adding an assist.

Now they’re all grown up and living in the Boston area. Just like the rest of us, they’re going to work, raising families, and having some fun every once in a while. Corny got his MBA and works at Fidelity Investments. Coop is a middle school teacher in Tewksbury. Robbie teaches, too; he’s an instructor at Marlborough’s Puckmasters Hockey Training Center, but his full-time gig is as a salesman with Paychex, Inc. And Gobies works in the Finance Department at Osram Sylvania.

Captain Cooper and his cronies, caps snugly secured on their heads, take a break from their warm-up show to talk with me. Coop and Robbie talk about the time they played against each other.

Coop grins, remembering when he and Robbie lined up against each other as they prepared for a face-off. Coop was trying to intimidate Robbie—or at least trying to get under his skin—by lifting Robbie’s stick. Coop lifted it all right—and in the process struck Robbie’s face.

“Oops, sorry Robbie,” Coop repeats now what he said to Atkinsson, who just looks at him in disbelief.

As he rubs his chin, Robbie recalls the incident. “Oh yeah,” he smiles then proceeds to repeat what he told Coop through his once bloodied lips, words which I can’t repeat here. This trip to the past lasts but an instant, and like Coop and the other two teammates, Robbie is smiling, ready to play on the same team once again.

Mouth Guard Guy and his three mates are not so happy because they’re down by almost two touchdowns at halftime. Yes, halftime. There are two 15-minute halves. Players are not allowed to take slap shots and are not allowed to raise the puck off the ice to score. There are no offsides or icing calls either, so the only time the play stops is when a player digs a misguided puck from the snow bank, which borders the pint-sized rink. The play also stops (and the clock keeps ticking) when the puck is shot underneath the red wood goal, which looks like a hurdle used at the Lilliputian Olympics.

During the five-minute intermission, the Danglers glide over to my side of the ice, toward the imaginary scorekeeper’s hut.

“They must be thinking, ‘they’re kicking our (butts) and they’re sucking up to the referee,’” Corny grins at me.

These guys don’t need any help from this pond hockey referee, who, by the way, has the easiest job in hockey because the teams all but police themselves. There is no hooking, no slashing, and no need for me to blow the whistle. Good thing, because I don’t have one. The Danglers are skating, usually beating their opponents to an open patch of ice en route to scoring what appears to be an easy goal. The team maintains their torrid goal scoring pace in the second half, increasing the lead to more than three touchdowns. Playing three-on-three in the game’s last five minutes, one player on each team lags behind the play, leaning on their sticks, talking about whatever hockey players talk about, and keeping one eye on their teammates at the other end of the rink.

After the 31–4 victory, the reunited Warriors prepare for their next game.

“Who’s the next victim?” I ask.

“A team from Miramichi (New Brunswick).”

I join the Boston crew after the 25–8 victory over the Miramichi Land Daulphins then ask Coop for his vote on the three stars:

“Robbie played great defense,” he says, and then remembers to praise his other two teammates:

3. Corny
2. Gobies
1. Robbie

No matter the order, The Danglers’ undefeated streak makes them the team to beat in the playoffs. Outscoring the first five opponents by a cumulative score of 132 to 31, everyone involved with the tournament can see the juggernaut is poised for the playoffs.

Stay tuned for Part II.
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