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On frozen ponds, the old made new

The son of a former Bruin is turning a New England staple — pond hockey — into entertainment on an epic scale

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By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / February 6, 2011

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MEREDITH, N.H. — Scott Crowder, the young man who is attempting to corner the market on New England pond hockey, has had several moments recently when it occurred to him that there are very good reasons no one has tried to turn this into a business before.

A big one came two weeks ago, when he first stepped onto frozen Lake Winnipesaukee to begin the massive process of carving 14 rinks from a thick layer of snow for a 1,000-player tournament this weekend, and his boots informed him that the snow was the least of his problems.

The ice was solid, at least 15 inches thick, which is the golden number he was shooting for. But on top of that ice, he discovered, was 5 inches of slush, which meant he couldn’t get trucks out there to plow it. The entire thing would have to be done by hand with snow blowers and, as Crowder can tell you, there’s a reason they’re not called slush blowers.

“I had never heard of a shear pin before, but we broke 100 of them,’’ Crowder said. “I told my friends that I was going to do soccer tournaments from now on, because the fields are already made.’’

This was not, he realized, going to be as easy as last year, when the 25-year-old former University of Massachusetts Amherst hockey player told this town — where his family has summered for a decade — that he was going to transform their winters with an annual pond hockey tournament like New England had never seen.

And then, by all accounts, he delivered on that promise.

Crowder, the son of former Bruin and Northeastern University coach Bruce Crowder, is capitalizing on an ideal, a notion of how life was or ought to be. It’s a picture-postcard New England tradition that may exist more in memory than reality these days, but is still, Crowder says, “in heavy demand.’’

The outdoor game has been going through a renaissance in recent years, spurred by the huge popularity of the NHL’s Winter Classic, an al fresco New Year’s Day game that began in 2008 and was played last year at Fenway Park.

Riding that buzz, Crowder’s inaugural New England Pond Hockey Classic drew 500 players last February (with hundreds more on a waiting list) and brought in big tourist dollars to the town during its slowest season.

But that was then, when the weather cut the kid a break, melted the snow with rain, then froze it solid to the point where one team skated from Meredith to Weirs Beach, 4 miles away.

This year, as Crowder has made pond hockey his full-time job and not only doubled the size of the Winnipesaukee tournament to 152 teams (they each pay $500 to enter), but added two more tournaments over the next two weekends — in Manchester and on Lake Champlain in Vermont — Mother Nature has not been so kind.

After a two-week fight with slush, Crowder and his team had the rinks ready-to-skate Tuesday. The next day it snowed 14 inches.

As the sun set Thursday night, just hours before the puck dropped for the first game Friday morning, Crowder, who grew up in Nashua, and his team were just finishing the last rink, again.

“I told my girlfriend I wanted a nine-to-five job,’’ he joked as he directed two guys with shovels to hit a rough patch near the center of the ice. “With a guaranteed salary.’’

Crowder did not invent the idea of a New England pond hockey tournament (there’s been one in Rangeley, Maine, for five years). “What he did is show that a large-scale event could work in this region,’’ Joe Proulx said Friday as he looked out across a frozen lake bustling with hockey action.

Proulx, who gets 30,000 visitors a month on his blog about the outdoor game, backyard-hockey.com, said that the demand to take the sport outside has always been there from the players, and only now are people translating that demand into tournaments.

Five years ago, he said, there were a handful of tournaments in North America; now his website lists 200.

The outdoor game has always been prized for its free-form improvisation, its very lack of organization. But what Crowder is doing in this market (most of his players are from Greater Boston) does not run against that ethos, Proulx argues. Instead, it enables it.

“Without that organization, the disorganization of pond hockey could not happen. What he’s done is allow the rest of us to come out here and play shinny,’’ he said, using a hockey term to denote a pickup game where shin pads are the only protection you need.

Indeed, the Pond Hockey Classic bears little resemblance to the modern indoor game. The games are four-on-four with no goalies, there are no referees or whistles, the boards are made out of snow, and the net is really two tiny nets connected by a central bar.

The game favors danglers — shifty finesse players — and puck control, not skating and strategy. And while it can at times get heated — the first ambulance arrived five minutes into the tournament — for many, it’s just an excuse to hang out with the boys, act up, and try to drink beer before it freezes (this is one of the reasons you have to be 21 or over to play in the tournament).

“I remember jumping off the school bus and running right to the bogs to skate,’’ said Scott Gustafson, a 46-year-old who was playing on a team from Plymouth, Mass. “But a lot of the younger kids have never played outdoors. I can’t wait for my son to be old enough to come up and play with us, because this is something he’s never experienced.’’

As thousands crowded onto Meredith Bay on Friday to enjoy the games and the mini-festival that has sprung up around them — on the ice were a pizza stand, two sausage vendors, a community bake sale, sponsor booths, and a skate sharpening kiosk — one local, who was selling scarves at a booth on the ice, gave Crowder and his tournament a very big compliment.

“It’s become bigger than the ice fishing tournament,’’ she said, slightly aghast.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com.

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