Column: Pondering Pond Hockey

Kids today don't know what they're missing
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

“I think we have too many AAA, Showcase and elite camps for the kids today, and as a result, we are creating a bunch of robots. We need to make it fun for the kids and let them learn to love the game the way we did.” – Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team in “Pond Hockey: A Documentary Film”

Just over half a million kids play organized hockey in the United States, as I did – but trust me, they’re missing out.

We’re deep in the dead of winter. And for most of us, there’s not a lot to do, and not much to look forward to for the next couple months. But if you’re a hockey player – scratch that, if you’re a pond hockey player – this is the best time of year.

When I was growing up – not that long ago – we’d come home from school, slip our skates onto our sticks and throw the sticks over our shoulders like hobos carrying their knapsacks, then trudge through the apple orchard behind our neighborhood to a pond in the middle of the woods. We’d lace ‘em up and play until it was too dark to see, then put our boots back on and head home for dinner.

On weekends, we’d spend all day down there. Friends of mine who lived near Burns Park and Thurston Pond would come home, eat dinner with their skates on, then go back to the ice for more.

We got more ice time in a single day on those ponds than we got in weeks of indoor practices and games. And it was more fun, too. No try-outs, no scoreboards, no whistles, no drills, no lines, no benches, no coaches, no refs – in fact, no adults at all – and no nets. Just a pair of boots at each end.

I don’t recall once coming back from the pond upset that we’d lost. That’s because we played about a dozen games a day, and whenever one team lost too many, we’d just change teams. I also can’t recall much about the hundreds of indoor practices I endured as a kid, but I can remember those long, happy days on the pond like they were yesterday.

But when you drive by those very same ponds today, you won’t see any kids. They’re all packed in vans, being dragged to some tournament two hours away. And when they get back, they’ll be inside playing video games.

So when my old high school teammate, Pete Read, put together his third annual Michigan Pond Hockey Classic at Whitmore Lake last weekend – one of the nation’s biggest – it was no surprise that almost all of the 500-some players were over thirty.

Read laid out 15 rinks, separated only by snow banks. We played four-on-four, with no goalies or fancy nets – just a flat box of two-by-sixes. Everyone got dressed in one big tent, and sat on hay bales. A hockey locker room is one of the few places on earth where the smell can be improved by fresh hay. The guys getting ready to play could see their breath, while the guys coming back in could watch the steam coming off their pads as they stuffed them back into their bags.

My team, consisting of a bunch of former high school teammates, got our butts kicked in the first two games by margins like 21-14 – football scores. In our last two games, however, we staged heroic rallies to lose by a little less.

But we had a blast all weekend. Until our last game, that is, when the volunteer score keeper – god bless ‘im – decided to play full-time ref, and rule on every out-of-bounds play and every goal. Before we realized what we were doing, we started sniping and hacking at each other, and the once friendly match quickly devolved into – well, a little league hockey game. Once we told the would-be ref we could handle the game ourselves, we got back to playing pond hockey – and that’s what we love.

One of my friends brought his son along, but he couldn’t play with us because his travel team had a game later that day.

Poor kid doesn’t know what he’s missing.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By David
    January 22, 2010 at 10:36 am | permalink

    This a great article. One could write a similar article on the changes in the way kids play and learn baseball, football, basketball and soccer. I am usually for progress and new technologies, but in this case I beleive the old ways were much better for kids.

  2. By Dave Askins
    January 22, 2010 at 11:08 am | permalink

    I’ve been apprised of a Facebook group that’s been formed called “Bring Back the Burns Park Ice Rink

  3. By jcp2
    January 22, 2010 at 11:47 am | permalink

    This winter has been good for pond (and backyard) skating. Consistently cold, not too much snow to clear.

  4. By Liz Nowland-Margolis
    January 22, 2010 at 2:44 pm | permalink

    Fond memories John! I remember the long days on Thurston pond and even got my hands on a hockey stick a few times (“real” hockey for me came only a few years ago!). Watching for the green flag across the pond that alerted us that it was “safe” to go skate! Missed Pete’s event this year so glad to hear it went so well and the weather basically cooperated!

  5. By Matt Naud
    January 22, 2010 at 3:49 pm | permalink

    They are ice fishing on first sister lake – but near the edge – plenty of room for hockey

  6. By Mike Garrison
    January 22, 2010 at 10:49 pm | permalink

    The movie John quotes from is a great movie. I bought it shortly after it came out on DVD and really enjoyed it. You can pick it up at [link]

  7. By Heidi Koester
    January 24, 2010 at 3:13 pm | permalink

    Enjoyed the article, but I disagree that “when you drive by those very same ponds today, you won’t see any kids.” From my home office window, I have a decent view of Thurston Pond. There’s an adult group that plays hockey there almost every day at noon time, and in the afternoons, after school is out, there are always skaters on the ice, most frequently playing hockey. It’s great to see, and it’s made possible by everyone who helps remove snow and otherwise maintain the ice.

    I do agree that in general kids today seem more pressed for time than I remember as a kid in the 70′s. I did have a lot of scheduled activities (swim practice every day, tennis several times a week, etc.), but one difference is I had nowhere near the amount of homework that our 9th grader has. I think that’s another factor that, for better or worse, works against spontaneous play opportunities for kids.

  8. By Jim Peyton
    January 30, 2010 at 1:45 pm | permalink

    One of my fondst memories of my time in Ann Arbor/Ypsilant was learning to play hockey at Whitmore Lake. I had met a girl with an 8 year old son and was trying to impress her. When she told me her son was an “excellent hockey player,” I was in a quandary. I could skate (barely), but was afraid my lack of ice skills would be an embarrassment.

    Enter co-worker Steve, his friend Willie and Willie’s enormous brothers (the goons). They schooled me in some fundementals (KEEP YOUR HEAD UP!), soem ettiquette about pond hockey (slap shots and high wrist shots were rewarded with a quick trip to the ice — usually on a painful part of the body), and the importance of knowing where the rink ended when skating backwards (obvious).

    When I thought I was ready I went to Lisa’s house to surprise her son. I had my new (used) Bauer Super Pros and stick in hand. Billy looked at me and asked what are those for? I said you Mom says you’re an excellent hockey player. Pack up and let’s go!

    He looked dumbfounded and I asked what was wrong — didn’t he play hockey? Sure he replied shaking the controller in my face — Nintendo.