THE parking lot was full of mud and full of cars. More cars lined the ponds like makeshift bleachers. There sat an old, daisy-yellow Chevy on the northern shore of the upper pond with a leather recliner in the bed. The actual bleachers were mostly empty. Everyone was huddled around the fires or as close to the action as they could get at the pond’s edge.
A pack of dogs ran the edges of the ponds. As two “serious teams” battled it out, three dogs had ganged up on a black labrador and were chasing it through neck deep snow. The dogs eventually found their way onto the ice, right in the middle of the match. The players and the dogs continued on with their respective games, unbothered by each other’s presence.
The whole point of the 16th Annual Creede “Golden Pick” Tommyknocker Pond Hockey Tournament is that it’s for everyone, not professionals.
Surrounded by Creede’s mountain, 3 v. 3 on both pond sides get ready for face off. Bystanders and teams off the ice cheer for those passing the puck. Valley locals and out of state vistiters from Creede down to Texas dribble the puck and cheer with beers.
The “serious teams,” were really just two teams who all wore matching jerseys. The passion behind the game and the culture was obvious. But this tournament is just about having fun and breaking the rules. The goals were small and low to the ground, requiring no tender. Some players wore regulation hockey helmets. Others wore climbing helmets or bike helmets, or just beanies. A guy was dressed as a Ninja Turtle and there was no shortage of Hawaiian and American flag shirts. There was not a single chest pad in sight.
The referee was drinking Coors.
As Brian Brittain, owner of Tommyknocker Tavern, says, “This tournament is for the rest of us.”
Hockey gear was kind of strewn about near cars. It was a cacophony of ’80s rock, three hockey games all sliding around together, dogs barking, and conversations filled with boozy laughter.
Pond hockey goes back a ways in Creede. Willow Creek’s drainage and cliff-shaded piece of land have come together to create the ideal conditions for months-long ice. These ponds have created a tradition. Since humans figured out how to strap pieces of metal onto their shoes and whack rocks with sticks, we’ve been drawn to the ice. When the ponds are just a few feet deep and a 10-minute walk from home, it comes as no surprise there is a rooted tradition of ice-bound sports in Creede.
You throw in a little camaraderie, primordial violence, and a couple of sticks, and you simply have another activity that creates lifelong friendships, generational rivalries, and gives people a reason to go outside. In small Rocky Mountain towns and Canadian prairie towns, the cold can be killer. Hockey, with all its brutality and endurance, is an answer and a solution to the gloom of the cold.
Or at the very least, it’s a reason to tolerate the cold.
Teams who travel to rival towns encourage a little bit of socializing. Whether it’s on the ice or in the limited amount of bars in town, teams are forced to spend time together. On a long weekend, hockey gets people out of the house. It brings neighbors together. As the football season dwindles down toward the commercial hell that is the Super Bowl, contact sports fans and fanatics alike can enjoy the fresh air and heart-pumping excitement of seeing two long-haired inebriates tear each other’s jerseys over their heads. The adrenaline-fueled furnace of a collective celebration of violence is enough to warm anybody’s heart and hands right up.
The collective enjoyment was warm, but the little breeze was just cold enough to make the bonfire’s respite the place to be. The bleachers were empty because, in the dim and dwindling evening light, they looked as cold as a Siberian prison camp. Cases of Coors Banquet lying on the ground and flames three feet high were all the welcoming invitation one needed. It was also the best seat in the house.
It was a heated, front-row seat to the action.
A three-on-three, round-robin style tournament was designed to make sure three games were played simultaneously, with games happening all the time. Not only did this provide the crowd with enough hockey to last a whole season, it gave every player a chance to feel like Gretzky or Laperriere. With a little tipping of the blood-alcohol scales, gliding around on smooth ice is second-best to flying.
Situated at a comfortable 8,900 feet of elevation is the upper pond. This was where the “real” competition took place. The middle and lower ponds were where everyone else played. Kip’s Grill team, for example, was made up of a ragtag team of employees.
Also spotted were groups of friends, some of whom hadn’t quite gathered their skate-legs yet, who strapped on puffy jackets and bike helmets, just to slap a puck around the ice, enjoying nothing more than the moment at hand. There was no urge of competition nor desire to win or score a goal. Scoring was just part of the fun. When the scores were slapped in, both teams and both sides of the crowd cheered. Nobody came to see who could score more points, they came to just see some hockey.
20 F air fills the lungs of hockey heads whose brains are too preoccupied with first place dreams to care about jackets. Maximum effort is put into dribbling the puck, for free drinks and bragging rights are on the line for the team in tie dye.
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday
After two hard-fought, beer-filled days, Perry’s Fairies, a team out of Denver, took home the A-Level prize against Unavil.
In the B-Level tier, Lake City’s Check Republic took home the prize over Breck Brewery.
In total, 31 teams took part in the tournament. Many were from right here in the San Luis Valley and Colorado. Teams from New Mexico, Michigan, and Texas showed up for the chance at bragging rights, too.
“The Golden Pick” is sponsored by Tommyknocker Tavern and Kip’s Grill for Creede Athletics.
Brian Brittain, owner of Tommyknocker Tavern, and Kip Nagy, owner of Kip’s Grill, are the official referees. Kip couldn’t be reached on Monday – he was at the Avalanche game.
The tournament also functions as a fundraiser for the Tommyknocker Tavern and Kip’s Grill for Creede Adult Athletics organization and the local food vendors.
The tournament’s proceeds will go directly to pond upkeep, zamboni maintenance, equipment, future tournaments, and Creede Athletics.