The Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament has been a welcome event in the middle of the last few Buffalo winters. Taking notes from it’s older cousin in Eagle River, Wisconsin, the Buffalo tournament has truly become a must-play for any beer leaguer in Western New York.
As is the case with sport in Buffalo, things have rarely gone according to plan. The tournament has been plagued by bad ice, warm weather and many hiccups. 2012 was the climax of various hurdles over the first five iterations as the Inner Harbor didn’t freeze and the tournament needed to change over to a street hockey format.
The tournament organizers are obviously trying to combat that by building in additional fail-safe methods for the upcoming tournament. However the changes being made have a very disappointing tone to them. The tournament will change from a weekend long event to a one-day marathon of hockey and the registration process has also changed from first-come first-serve to a lottery process.
While Labatt details that Sunday is to be used as a makeup day, it is clear that they’re trying to avoid any chance of disaster leading up to Buffalo’s premier hockey event. Based on previous tournaments, it is probably a safe bet that Sunday factors into the planning.
My participation two years ago couldn’t have been better. We had outstanding ice on the first two days and only suffered through the slush for our championship game on Sunday. Despite perfect weather on Friday and Saturday (even a scene setting flurry on Saturday), Sunday’s warm temperatures caused nasty ice conditions that cost some participants the chance to finish up. However, the weekend was more of a celebration of the sport (and drinking) more than just three hockey games mixed with cheap beer.
The tournament itself really is more of a celebration of the sport and region than an actual hockey tournament. It is a great excuse to get together with some buddies, play some hockey on a pond and drink some beers. The changes to this year’s version will rob the event of some of the atmosphere.
Clearly the organizers are attempting to avoid the loss of hockey at all costs. Last year’s cancellation was a debacle and was certainly a disappointment for everyone involved. The need to preserve the ice and ensure all the teams get to play is of utmost importance. Yet this change feels very cheap when you consider the greater scope that this tournament brings. Not to mention that 12 separate divisions worth of hockey teams will tear up the ice over the 12 hours of planned hockey that day. Perhaps making Sunday part of the tourney, rather than a make-up day, would assure a higher quality playing surface – not that any of us playing need a pristine playing surface.
The lottery system is also an interesting work around from the previous registration method. As described by those attempting to sign up in years past, it is little more than “sitting in front of your computer in your underwear after a night of drinking on New Year’s and hitting refresh hoping to get through to sign up”. Allowing for two full weeks of registration gives an even playing field to all. It also leaves far too much room for disappointment, particularly for those incumbent teams from previous seasons.
Maybe there is no way around this since everyone and their brother wants to play and having a fire sale on the limited spots doesn’t necessarily allow for many to get their taste of this special tournament.
Of course, all of this should be solved sometime in this decade. One day, when the historically aligned faux canals are complete at Canalside, they will be frozen for all to skate on. Since there will be refrigeration equipment in the canals, they should be able to maintain ice even above freezing temperatures. Perhaps if they had been built the first time they were put on the table (thanks obstructionists), they would be in use today.
Alas, the canals won’t be ready for at least another calendar year but should be in prime shape to host hockey in February of 2014. That, combined with cooperative weather could potentially open this tournament up to a massive number of teams. Depending on weather, the tournament could double in size thanks to the availability of consistent ice.
Look forward to the 2014 tournament as the potential perfect storm of outdoor hockey in Buffalo. But in the meantime, put your name in the pot and hope you have a chance to play in the 2013 event.